Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Global Exchange Kerala Trip

India can be an overwhelming place. There is so much to try to understand and so much that gets lost in translation. To no surprise to all of you who know me, since I have arrived I have been reading everything I can get my hands on. The local new agents laugh as I purchase every English language newspaper and news magazine they have. I have written some in my blog about the many contradicting faces of India and I realise that no matter how much I learn there will still be so much beyond my grasp.

In an effort to add even more substance and context to my trip, I decided to spend the last two weeks on a Global Exchange "Reality Tour" of the southern state of Kerala. Once again GX helped me connect with local leaders, professors, workers and activists so I could hear their stories and ask some of my ever expanding list of questions. It also gave me a group of fellow US travellers to share observations with.

Kerala and Gulf Money

One thing that has surprised me on my visit to Kerala is that this is the community that all those Indians I met (and photographed) in Dubai are from. It feels like a lovely completion of a journey, because when I was in Dubai and meeting so many Indians, I got my first pull thinking that I had to visit India. Although most of my family members have been to India multiple times and have always sung its praises, it wasn't until I met those men that I really wanted to visit. Their sweet soft spirits brought the country to life in a place where I was expecting to meet Arabs.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Kerala Photos

A short school break just to say hello. Every time this happens I get afraid that their teachers will come out and yell at them, but it seems that they like the diversion too.

A women making beedie cigarettes out of leaves and tobacco. One of the many co-operatives that I visited to learn about the programs they provide to give better wages and somewhat of a safety net.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Indian Child Labor: Up Close and Personal

Last night I shared my overnight train compartment with an Indian family. I had the top bunk so I watched and talked to them from there. They were a small family from Trivandrum, Kerala, in South India. The father was an army doctor. I thought it was a young couple and their two daughters, but at sleep time one of the two girls disappeared so I asked where she went. The mom said rather indignantly that she was not her daughter but her maid and apparently she was sent to sleep in a lower class train car while the three in the nuclear family cuddled safely together.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Beautiful Kerala

Sunday, November 26, 2006

India Thoughts

Yesterday I hit a low and couldn't deal with how hard people are working here just to be exploited by the system and the world market. We went to a coir mat making co-operative. Coir is collected from the outside husk of a coconut and turned into a twine rope. It is the stuff that make those natural fiber door mats and natural twine fiber carpets (perhaps called sissle?) Because of big business competion this cooperative can't get prices high enough to provide the better wages and benefits they were set up to provide. Big factories have come in and strong-armed and exploited the market and prices have dropped by a lot. If the company can't compete with their prices the order goes to the next guy. And... this whole area is filled with coir factories so competion is high. In fact it employs 60% of the people that live here.

The exploitation causes very very low wages and people living largely below the poverty line which is determined at $1 a day. Watching four men power a manual loom creating the carpets was heartbreaking because of the back breaking work they are doing. They are exposed to health issues with massive dust inhalation and exposed to poisonous dies and bleaches with no gloves or masks. They can only get enough work for 4 days a week which certainly does not give them enough wages to feed their families. And what makes me ache inside is that I don't believe there is any way to fight these workers battles. Walmart, Target and CVS... will continue to sell their mats and cheaper prices

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Indians sure are hard workers

Another thing that strikes me here is the desperation people have to earn money. I recently left Agra, the city that the Taj Mahal is in. It is a poor industrial city with alot of people trying to make a living from tourism there. I would walk out of my hotel and many many rickshaw drivers would run after me and offer their services for practically nothing. An old man on a bike rickshaw quoted 10 cents for a whole hour! I want to help them all since they are obviously trying to work so hard.

I had another conversation today that puts such a contrast to our views in the Western world. I am now in Kerala in the south of India. Many people from this region go and work as guest workers in the Middle East. From the perspective here, they are going to good jobs and are bringing back wages that allow them to build new big houses and provide for their families in ways that they couldn't here. From the Western world's perspective though, I just read yet another article about the way workers are treated in Dubai. In a region where the average monthly per capita wage is over $2,000 a month, Indians are only earning about $106 to $250 per month, accordeing to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Their conditions are atrocious and from my perspective it seems more like slave labor, but from a local Indian here, that wage was alot and it was worth it to give him a leg up at home. He did it for a few years and it was tough, but he didn't even seem to notice that it was a low wage. In fact, he had to calculate it and agree that is what he was getting paid.

India's GDP is estimated at $640 per year and over 30% of the people make less than a dollar a day so its no wonder that they are willing to work under those circumstances.

India Photos

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Golden Temple: The Holiest Site for Sikhs

My journey since the Pushkar Camel Fair has taken me to Jaipur, where I rode like royals on the back of an elephant up to their great fort and palace. Then to Agra to see the great contrasts of India with the Taj Mahal with all its regal grandeur, popping up out of a poor, polluted, gritty, industrial city. Then to Delhi, the gigantic sprawling capitol city to celebrate the elections and Rumsfeld's ouster with a large group of Western journalists who were able to give me a better bird's eye view on the news in the region.

Finally I reached my last stop in Northern India, Amritsar in the state of Punjab. As many of you New Yorkers may know Punjab is the Indian state that is the home of Sikhs. It is the region that our regal turbaned Indian neighbors come from and because of that it was on the top of my list of sites to see, even though it is a bit off of the tourist track.

India: Urban vs. Rural

The contrasts of India continue to strike me. People crowded like sardines into cities. Rickshaws, bikes, cars, trucks, camel and oxcarts, cows and people taking up every bit of open space so that as a pedestrian I feel like I have to hold my breath to make my way on the street. And then all you have to do is get on a train or drive from place to place and look out the window to see endless farmland with only an occasional burst of color from a sari or turban.

The reality is that India is farm country. One of their proudest accomplishments of the past 30 years is their "Green Revolution". Which because of good political stewardship and the introduction of new varieties of crops, fertilizers and soil maintenance, India has raised its output of wheat by leaps and bounds. Now the lands are producing much more and famine is only a historical memory. It went from a beggar nation depending on America’s excess wheat, left over from farm subsidies, to a donor nation which was able to give to Ethiopia and Vietnam during their famines in the 80’s. One reads that during this time of growth farmers were actually seen as rich. Something that is hard to imagine as an American. Land is a great resource in a growing country that needed to be fed.

India Photos

Saturday, November 04, 2006

More photos from India

Beautiful ornate Jain temples are all over in this country.

The carvings are really intricate

Its amazing what women can balance on their heads!

Camels camels and more camels!

Religious pilgrims, packing the streets

Friday, November 03, 2006

India is jam packed with Indian tourists

I have been traveling in India during the Diwali holiday. Diwali is India's happiest and biggest holiday of the year. The actual day is filled with candles and lights since its the day that Rama their loved king came back from exile and they say he came from the dark to the light. Everyone blows off firecrackers and celebrates for days. They also give gifts and pray for prosperity.

On a larger level, people get about 2 weeks off during this time and so its a time for the new middle class Indians to travel around the country and see the sites. This has meant that every big place we go is FILLED with Indians. Its amazing how charming it is to be packed into a palace with all the Indians. So much better than being with a bunch of Westerners!

The most charming part is that the Indians want to take our photos. They walk over and say "one photo?" and place their kids next to me for what must be an odd photo. I even had a baby put in my arms one time. And one time I was in the middle of a huge family photo. And pictured above, there was a group of young guys who all wanted a picture.

The only sad part is that I feel like I always look hot and wilted and really must not add much to the photos. I certainly don't look like the hollywood people they have in their minds. Meanwhile they always look bright, fresh and pressed.

India: Pushkar Camel Fair

Ahh India... I don't even know where to start. Should I describe a typical street scene or the traditional dress or the strong religious culture or the amazing architecture??? What about the noises and smells? Frankly I could write a whole essay about the cows that wander around everywhere. I'm really starting to believe they are holy. They have a way of looking deep into my eyes!

Anyway, you get the idea. My brain here is constantly stimulated which makes it hard to sit back and reflect and then share. Too much to process.

Its funny because I think people think that travelling is a lazy vacation but in truth its hard work to really "see" the world. Every direction I look in is something worth attention and memory. And each place I visit has temples, palaces and forts that have deep history and much to learn about. I try so hard to soak everything in and then really try to process it for myself and to share what I see with all of you. My thoughts come from a combination of books I am reading, local papers and conversations I have with anyone I can find to talk to me.

Right now I am at the Pushkar Camel Fair. Pushkar is located in the Indian state of Rajastan. Its on the edges of the Thar Desert and camels are a main mode of transport. (You've probably seen the camel cart on my blog.) So... once a year nomads bring over 50,000 camels and other livestock (horses and cows) to sell. This little religious pilgrimage town goes from 16,000 to 200,000. Along

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Update from India

If you are checking for more photos or updates I apologize for not keeping up. While IT people may be getting all the US tech jobs, regular tech infrastructure here is not as up to date. That means iffy connections. Little to no ability to upload and mostly frustrating stops at internet cafes. I wrote a good little bit about the street scene yesterday, but then my computer just shut off. Its kept me from doing much writing.

The trip continues to be very interesting. I am finally in the India groove. It means I am taking the ups and downs and hassles in stride and spending lots of time talking to any Indians who will talk to me. You know... an hour at the newsstand with the newsagent today. They even brought me a chair so we could sit together and watch the people go by.

Went on a camel trek last night. I wasn't sure what it would be like but spending sunset in rolling sandunes and then sleeping there out in the open air is pretty splendid! And although I couldn't get my camel to gallop, he had a nice fast trot that mixed up all my insides!

I have 5 more weeks to go! Everything is moving very fast!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

India: First Thoughts on this Crazy Country!

On my past travels I would talk to a fellow travelers about countries we had been to. We would compare notes about favorite stops, people, actvities… Many times people would say “But have you been to India…???” with a long pause. As if India was the toughest challenge there was. Although I didn’t understand what they meant I decided I better come here and check it out myself. I mean, how different could it be from Africa, Asia or Central America??? (You may be thinking Afghanistan, but that doesn't count because I went with a group to visit there instead of travelling alone.)

Anyway, I’m here now and I know what the long pause was about. India is VERY different from all of the places I’ve ever travelled on my own. Mostly I think it has similar chaos with many many many more people. Somehow its hard to get things done here and even hard to get from place to place.

My senses are running at 200%. People come at you from every direction. Cars, bikes, rickshaws crowd the streets. Horns constantly blow. People line the sidewalks doing commerce, sleeping, eating. Touts assault you with “Buy this? Need a guide? Where are you from, Madam?…” And they are good at their game. We are strictly instructed not to talk to them and yet I sort of like to and being a cold hard New Yorker I don’t find it that hard not to buy what they are selling in the end.