Sunday, December 30, 2007

Udaipur: I was an Indian Princess

The car arrived at 9 in the morning and I hopped in, destination Udaipur. We began the long drive down the obstacle course known as the Indian Road. Through the city of Jodhpur we went, onto the highway and passing an endless sea of trucks. We turned onto a one lane road as we drove through rural India. The driver tried to communicate something to me in his very poor English, something along the line of ‘smaller road to Udaipur, other road take longer’. “Shortcut!” I exclaimed. “Yes, short cut!” the driver laughed. Apparently the road cut off some 60 km of driving, saving us about an hour.

We drove through the Aravali hills, passing the Jain Temples in Ranachpur, I noticed signs of giant cats and a goodly number of dhurris waving in the wind, their weavers hoping to call in customers. We stopped for lunch there in a very nice restaurant called Harmony, offering a Rajasthani buffet catering to tourist busses. The food was excellent and it was lovely to sit outside in the forest. A few hours later we were in Udaipur, asking every person along the way how to get to Hanuman Ghat, the area where the hotel I hoped to stay at was.

This is an interesting way to find directions in India but it works. The driver just keeps asking people and they tell him directions up to the next turn and then he asks the next person, and so on until we get there. One of the people he asked was a man sitting in a little shop doing miniature painting work, I was intrigued by the peaceful little shop.

We squeezed through a very narrow little street and finally came up on the hotel, The Amet Haveli, a 350 year old haveli that was on the lake shore. I got out and looked at the room; very beautiful. I don’t know if it was really worth the 3000rs price, but it had a window seat studded with cushions looking out over the lake, a 4 poster bed, and a beautiful tiled bathroom with an actual bathtub! A rare find in India. 3000 rupees is less than the price of a highway hotel in the states, so what the hell, why not? I was treating myself. I took the room. How was I to know that the bathtub would only be able to be filled two inches with water from the tiny hot water geyser? Ah well, the window seat totally made up for that.

I went for a walk, noting the architecture, feeling the familiarity of the place and ignoring a multitude of rickshaw drivers and store hawkers, by this time I was hardened to that old Indian song. I walked across the bridge to the other side of the lake and talked to some gypsy musicians, also courting my money. I bought a CD and they offered to pose for me so I snapped a shot. I walked back and noticed once again the man in the store doing miniature paintings and felt attracted to go and see what he was doing. Unlike the many other miniature painting stores which were adorned with annoying hawkers, this place was small and I was drawn in by the man’s concentration on his work. I sat with him for 3 hours and watched him mix paint, draw boarders and frames and I looked at his collection. We talked about meditation and concentration and how the world falls away when immersed in an activity. I admired his eyes which gave an intense and direct gaze when he spoke. I picked two paintings and paid a fair price for them and he invited me to his home to meet his family the next night. I didn’t end up going, though had I not been otherwise engaged the next evening, I might have.

I went back to the hotel and had a small bowl of soup and a drink at the restaurant by the lake, gazing out at the palace on the lake, and the palace on the opposite lake shore. A voice struck out across the water wailing a classical Indian stream of notes. Although the city of Udaipur is just as busy and insane as any other Indian city, the lake shore is like going back in time 300 years to some other India that is now only a distant memory, a melancholic longing.

The next day I got up early. I had my breakfast out on the lake and watched the bathers at the ghat while listening to the rhythm of the laundry wallahs giving their clothes a severe thrashing. I walked across the bridge and made my way up the crooked streets of the old city to the Grand Palace, former capital of the Mewar Kingdom. The palace was a marvel, room after room of splendor in architecture. This palace was restored not too long ago from what looked in pictures like an absolute mess. I took the audio tour and learned, among other things, of the princess Krishna. In the 18th century her father made a mistake by promising her to the princes of Jodhpur and Jaipur. They both came to claim her and set up their camps outside the city. The father, realizing that if he made a choice to give her to either man it would plunge the Mewar Kingdom into war, decided instead to have his daughter put to death. They poisoned her, but she didn’t die. They gave her another dose, and still she was not harmed. They could of declared this a divine sign, a miracle, but instead they made a draught of the most powerful poisons imaginable, and this sent her into a deep sleep, a sleep from which she never awakened.

I cried when I heard this story. I must have been Krishna in another life. No wonder men bug me. Well not all of them…but…I digress…

Winding my way back through the old city, I got caught in a traffic jam. It was a parade of Indian pilgrims who were carrying holy water in a pot collected from the sacred Ganges River. They were bringing the water to the lake at Udaipur because by merging the waters, the lake water becomes sacred.

I went back to the hotel and had lunch. While there I met a couple of Americans from the East Coast who were teaching at U Toronto. He was a non-whiny Woody Allen type from New York, and she, a tall Jennifer Connolly look-a-like from Philly. They were witty and interesting and I liked them right away. I invited them to go sightseeing with me for the afternoon. We got in my car and my driver took us around happily informing us when he was using ‘a shortcut’ to which he and I would smile knowingly at each other. We went up to the Monsoon Palace for a spectacular sunset, and then made our way back down the hill. They took me to dinner at a fantastic rooftop restaurant on top of the Udai Kothi Hotel. We drank Mojitos and had great conversation lasting long into the night. After the meal we traded contact info and went our separate ways. And so it goes with those one meets on their travels. More than most, I hope I see them again.

The next morning my driver and I set off back toward the Aravali Hills, stopping in Kumbulgarh, an amazing fort surrounded by a 36km wall, akin to The Great Wall of China. I climbed up to the the top of the fort, the view from which was like being on top of the world. The fort was surrounded by many Jain and Hindu temple ruins which I explored until I had blisters on my feet. Finally settling back into the car for the ride down the hill, watching men with the most interesting turbans, as we drove I noticed the men tied their turbans differently than I had seen in other parts of Rajasthan. It seemed they were dyed in different colors and used different tie and dye techniques with each town we drove through. Rural life there looked very much like I imagine it has for many centuries. Water was being pulled from streams by tying cows to a wheel that pulled the water up to irrigate. It seemed like such a peaceful life. As I was admiring with a kind of longing, the driver spoke, “Dangerous area,” he said, “Adivasi”. Referring to the generic name for tribal peoples. "Not safe."

I stayed at another fantastic hotel that night The Aryawani Resort. I had a huge room all in slate. There was a stunning balcony with a view looking down the valley where, if one were lucky, they might just see a jaguar or cougar. Tigers are no more in this area, though at one time there were many. This was the most peaceful place in all of India I am sure, far removed from the city and very remote. After checking in, we drove down to visit the amazing Jain Temples in Ranachpur, all carved from marble and giving the Taj Mahal a run for its money. Then back for drinks around the outside fire, more lovely conversation with some folks from England who were on a trekking by day and luxury hotel by night tour and their guide, a fabulous dinner and a sleep that was so quiet that it felt like it must surely have been in some other country, far far away from India.

Then, in the morning, back on the obstacle course highway we zoomed back to Jodhpur for a few short hours before to say goodbye to Nigama and Emil, to Govind and Mukta and little Ayush, to Mira Didi and all of the girls, and to India. It was Nigama’s birthday and Govind had bought her a cake, so we all sang happy birthday and ate cake and then piled into the car to take me to the train station and I railed off to Delhi. I checked into a cheap room in Delhi and rested for the day and then flew off to Bangkok in the wee hours of the morning.

Thank you Ganesh, for safekeeping me in your beloved India. I will never forget the way you held me close in your loving trunk.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sambhali: A Guiding Light


They call him brother, the girls of Sambhali. A year ago, Govind Singh Rathore founded a school for Harijan girls in Jodhpur, a city in India’s Rajasthan state. He called it the Samhali Trust. Sambhali means ‘consciousness’, and trust is what the girls and their families have come to feel for this man. The school teaches English, Arts and Crafts, Hygene and Aids Awareness, and it encourages and prepares the girls to attend Indian academic schools. The school has attracted the attention of international funders which has helped by means of making it possible to build a beautiful new classroom on the premises of Govind’s guesthouse, and also has facilitated the opening of a new classroom in Setrawa, a rural village about 90 kilometers from Jodhpur. The funding also helps send some of the girls to academic schools.

I came to visit Govind to see what I could do to help in the way of making a multimedia presentation that can be shown online. The day after I arrived, he and Nigama and I made the trip out to Setrawa to visit the new school, now open merely a month. There I met a wonderful volunteer from Australia, Amanda, a young woman of 27 years. I admired her bravado to be able to live alone in this village, let alone start a brand new school. Most of the attendees at this school are women of all castes, who share a lack of wealth as a common feature. Amanda teaches English and arts and crafts, and I was impressed with all she had done in one month’s time. When I asked her the most important benefit the school has given the women she said it was the opportunity to have a woman’s gathering place, where women could come together to talk openly together while working on handicraft projects.

This is a little different focus than the school in Jodhpur, which focuses entirely on girls of the Harijan caste, formerly known as ‘untouchable’. Harijan means children of God, a term coined by Gandhi. Now the term Dalit, meaning oppressed, has become popular to describe the lowest of castes.

I interviewed Sophie, an adorable young woman from Germany, all of 18, who has been living at the guesthouse for 2 months as a volunteer. She is doing a fantastic job with the girls. When I asked her what she learned from doing this work, she said it was a continuous reminder of how to live simply. She is leaving in a few days, and is very broken up about it, the bond she has made with the girls and Govind’s family is profound.

I went to visit the homes of several of the girls and was astounded at how clean their houses were. To say house is a misnomer, the girls and their entire families usually live in establishments of one or two rooms and often a courtyard. The courtyard serves as a kitchen where an open fire can be made to cook, and large ceramic pots hold the family’s water supply. The rooms all had shelves upon which their collections of stainless and ceramic ware were displayed beautifully, along with various knickknacks and religious icons. The walls were usually painted with a properly pointed swastika indicating the four directions, and there was usually a picture of Shiva on an alter somewhere in the compound, adorned with flowers and incense.

The girls giggled as they took me from house to house, where I had tea with the families of each house, the grandmothers exuding warmth to me, as we communicated without the benefit of language.

Govind has become a very special man in the minds of the families of the girls. While I was there, I witnessed the parents of one of the girls come to Govind for help in resolving a family problem. One of the girls of the family had been married into a family which was abusing the girl. They were beating her, and keeping her locked up, waking her up in the middle of the night to go do laborious chores. It was an inhumane and illegal situation. Govind was moved and called authorities he knew in that village, who went and retrieved the girl and charges were filed against the offending family. The girl will not be forced back into that family because luckily, her own family will take her back. This girl was lucky, she could have met with an unfortunate fate all too common for India’s young women. Govind’s intervention probably saved her life.

This is just a tiny touch of the story of the Sambhali Trust, but I wanted to post it so you would know what I was working on.

After I finished my interviews with the girls, I realized that it was my last few days in India, and I had still not seen Udaipur. Udaipur had been the city that attracted me to India in the first place. Having memories of a dream I had in childhood, Udaipur looked just like what I had seen in that dream. I couldn’t leave India for the second time without making the trek down there. And so I did.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jaisalmer is Falling


When a person needs to lie around and stare, Jaisalmer in India's Rajastani Thar Desert is the place to do it. There is a conflict between backpackers as to whether to stay in the fort and stare out at the city view, amazing, or to stay outside of the fort and stare at the fort. The answer to anyone with a modicum of ethics is obvious; the fort is falling. Why is it falling? It is falling because it was built in medieval times, and was not built to have water piped into it and drained out of it. That was added much later. The addition of plumbing has taken its toll on the fort, and many of the ramparts have fallen down. Something like 12 have fallen since the early 1990’s. This is all written up in Lonely Planet, and I would read and quote it but I gave my India Lonely Planet away when I left India a few days ago. It is a brick of a book, and my friend can use it for planning tours.

But I digress.

The LP bible states, and I paraphrase in my own language, that people who stay in the fort should be put to death. They don’t recommend hotels in the fort. I stayed at a place, The Shahi Palace, with an outstanding group of people who wanted to attend to me as I lay on the cushions that adorned the rooftop. Listening to ragas and stretched out on pillows while drinking chai and lemon sodas, I stared at the fort and contemplated the obvious damage to the remaining ramparts. The occupants of the fort would stand on the rooftops flying kites that wafted high above the city in the gentle breezes. The color of the fort in the setting sun is a sepia gold, and it is easy to see why Jaisalmer is nicknamed The Golden City.

When I got to Jaisalmer I was an emotional wreck. For reasons I do not care to mention in my blog, I was deeply in need of a nurturing rest. When I got out of the jeep that picked me up from the train at 5 in the morning, Mama Nigama was waiting for me. I fell into her arms and could feel waves of tears shuddering through my body. We went into one of the beautiful rooms of sandstone and granite and talked for several hours then spent the rest of the day walking through the fort and relaxing on the rooftop.

I did not go on a camel safari, which this place is known for. But my friends did, and I went with them as they set out from a village not far from Jaisalmer, and met some of the happy children of the desert. In the Thar desert, life is very simple and needs are very basic. When food, water, and shelter are taken care of, little else is needed. These children exemplify my opinion that children who have less are far happier than children who have everything.

Before heading back we went to the house of Bapu, the hotel manager, and I sat with his mother who was making chapatis in the traditional handcrafted way. After mixing them by hand, she roasted them on a pan over a fire which was fueled by cow dung. The walls of the kitchen are a kind of adobe plaster made of cow dung and sand from the desert. It is quite beautiful. I returned to the hotel to resume my staring activities.


One night after my friends returned and I had regained enough of myself to venture out to other places, we went to The Artist Hotel for dinner. This is a place which is very nice, has an outstanding view of the fort, and houses a group of musicians that play Thar desert music using a harmonium, a drum which dhoops like a tabla, but is played on both sides, Thar Desert Castanets, which are really two sticks in each hand which are played quite deftly, and singing. Before they played, the singer donned his turban, while giving me the look that was to enrapture me the rest of the night. The music was lively and fun, and the singer replaced the names of every woman in each song with my name, and stared at me throughout the night, inviting me to dance. At one point I loosened up enough to go have a castanet lesson with him, but failing miserably I went back to the table, head hung in shame. We had invited the local tollphone walla out to eat with us, and he bought us a bottle of gin which we drank. Before long Nigama and I were dancing. There was much laughter and for a time it was easy to forget my troubles. We stumbled our way back to the hotel, giggling the entire way.

The next day we were hungover, and I returned to my pillows and chai and fort staring activities. I did resume shopping in Jaisalmer, an activity I had avoided throughout my trip until that point. I could not resist the beautiful Jaisalmer patchwork wall hangings done by women in the desert. Tbey caught my eye whenever I would see them, and I finally succumbed to a gorgeous Picasso style turquoise threaded work of art. It is really impossible to describe them, so I suggest you Google ‘Jaisalmer patchwork’ in the Images mode.

We were so sad to leave Jaisalmer a week after I arrived, but we boarded the train late at night and made our way to Jodhpur where we were expected by Govind to work on the Sambahli Project Documentary. The next chapter in my blog.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Holy Varanasi


After being warned countless millions of times about what a vile and wretched place Varanasi is, I found out that everybody was wrong. Without a doubt, this ancient city is one of the most beautiful and amazing places on Earth.

After the long and trying train ride from Kolkatta, (which is known for it’s vileness and decay and I can not agree more), on a roach infested three tier coach, we were met at the station by the hotel clerk in order to avoid the so called ‘Varanasi shakedown’ of scandalous touts and potential thieving murderers. After zigzagging through the mad streets, breathing in the heavily polluted excuse for air, we were dropped off at the no vehicle zone with no porters to take us into the maze of the old city. We managed to pull our luggage through the tiny streets, avoiding the piles of sacred cow dung that dotted the path. When we reached the top of the stairs to Scindhia Ghat, I shook my head and said, “No More!” This is a land where porters are vying for your every rupee and the cost of hiring someone to carry the ugly American load down the steps is very small. But in India, that cost, say 50 rupees, is just about a hair less than the 55 rupee a day minimum wage. At the current exchange rate, it’s a fraction over a dollar. Never was a dollar better spent.

Up the tiny staircase and into the hotel room at Scindhia Guesthouse we plodded, through the room and out onto the balcony and then, (a chorus of Indian song accompanied by sacred bells) there it was, the sacred Ganges opened out into the mist and all sins became absolved in an instant. Boats dotted the river and nary a sound of an auto or motorcycle ensued because, praise Shiva, the vehicles are not allowed.

“This is the real India”, I said to my companion.

For two days I listened to the bells, I hung out and drank tea with sadhus, I walked the path along the ghats, I took a boat ride down the Ganges, I explored the tiny narrow streets which were shared by cows and a multitude of newly born puppies, I watched bodies being brought to the burning ghats and cremated, and I watched fishers fish for food and thousands of people take a daily bath of purification in the holy, horrifically polluted, sacred Mother Ganga.



A plea:

Indian Government are you listening? If you are, please take some of the country’s money (that has been unethically pilfered away into Swiss bank accounts) and build the badly needed sewage treatment plants that are needed to restore the Ganges to health. That is my request.

And while you are at it, please continue on the path of enlightenment and fix the water problems, roads, wiring and other basic infrastructure that are in such a sorry state of disrepair all over India. Oh, and as long as I’m asking please continue to demand education for the 800 million folks who are badly in need of some, who are obviously clever yet are not given the time of day by those in power. Give them medical facilities, and staff those facilities with doctors and nurses and medicine. Is that so much to ask considering how much money India is making these days?

Why India? Why do you have to be such a mess? You have such amazing potential, why should you be allowed to just crumble away into dust?

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's In Your Cup?

A GLOBAL VIEW OF SOCIETY

The elite and richest class of people live perched on the top of the economic triangle of the society that supports them. I remember seeing this triangle as it was drawn and explained by a literature teacher in college, many years ago. I thought of myself in the big broad band somewhere near the bottom, burdened by the weight upon me. But I was wrong. If the triangle stopped within the borders of the country I come from, then yes, I am somewhere in the lower part of the middle of that triangle. And that view would be true if everything produced within those borders supported that triangle. But it doesn't.

The truth is that almost everything produced for consumption and feeding the top of that elite band of wealth is produced outside our borders in what is commonly called 'The Third World'. A misnomer because actually, that world is the same one world we all live in. There is no getting away.

To feel the burden of all that wealth upon the inhabitants and laborers of that 'other' world is to understand your place in the triangle as far closer to the top band of wealth then you could have possibly imagined. A say 'you' because, yes, I mean you. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea and think about where it came from.

LET'S TALK TEA

As I continually defended my lack of wealth to the Indian pushers of handicrafts and other souvenirs, I knew innately that I was lying. That became clearer to me as I researched the plight of the Indian Tea Workers, women laborers mostly, who are often the only employed person in their large families. The pay in the Darjeeling region of tea plantations is 52 rupees a day; that equals a little more than a dollar. This is essentially the Indian minimum wage. For tea workers, supplementing that income is supposedly housing, food rations, and health care. These terms are written into the laws governing tea plantations, which should make tea picking a particularly appealing job for a laborer. Sadly, as the tea industry in India has faced economic hardship, many workers have been waiting years to get their housing, and are living in squalid conditions. This is true in the Darjeeling region, I know because I interviewed a woman who is facing this problem.

Kamala lives a mile or so down a narrow path, which is muddy and slippery in the rain. There is no electricity down where she is, because she can't afford the 2500 rupees (about 65 dollars) it would take to bring the electricity down the hill. Her house has holes where windows should be, and she cooks her food in a fire pit. When I was there, she made a fire to boil water for tea, which she offered my assistant and myself, along with some biscuits. The thought of the cost of the biscuits made me shudder, as I knew the money could have been used to feed her four young children, all of who were coughing badly.

This coughing is a concern because according to Nalin Modha, a consultant and former plantation manager, many of the tea workers and their families are suffering from TB. Without proper health care and treatment, this is surely a global concern as TB is highly contagious. However, most workers, unless they are so sick as to need hospitalization, can be seen plucking tea even while very sick. To miss a day of employment is to miss a day's wages; a luxury that she can't afford. If she is hospitalized, half of her wages will be used to pay the hospital for up to 14 days, and after that...?

Kamala's husband is a day laborer and is often without employment. When he does make money, it often goes toward alcohol, and when he drinks and is very high, sometimes he hits her. Kamala pays for her older children to go to school, but feels she can not afford it much longer, and her oldest son, all of about 13, will probably be forced to leave school to find work to help the family. She asked me if I could help her by finding him a job.

But Kamala is lucky, for she is still employed.

Four hours by car from the mountains of the Darjeeling Tea District lay The Duars, nestled in the plains of the Jalpaiguri District where common black tea without distinction is grown. Many plantations have closed in this region leaving workers and their families destitute. The result of these closures has seen women entering the flesh trade amongst other unfortunate outcomes, such as untreated illness and starvation. Of the plantations that are still open, many threaten closure to the women who attempt to stand up for their rights as written into the laws which are meant to regulate the plantations; rights such as housing, health care and food rations, which are being denied to the workers of many of these still open plantations. Even the minute salaries are often delayed, sometimes for months. The unions which were set up to protect the rights of these women, are in the hands of the management, meaning that no one at all is fighting for the rights of the tea workers; rights which are written into the laws are treated as if they do not exist.

Although there are plantations that are benevolent and are doing a good job of maintaining an ethical system, sadly they are not in the majority. According to Dr. S.S. Choudhury, Sociologist and author of the book Challenges of Tea Management in the 21st Century, the current plantation management system in India is a feudal system, is no longer cost effective, and is not capable of sustaining itself. He says that plantations that answer to corporate owners are far more successful than those run in ways set up by the Raj well over a century ago using the same systems of the slave plantations in USA's deep south of 19th century. Those plantations are subject to the whims of the 'lord' that is running them. If he is benevolent and opting for healthy, sustainable planting practices that keep the garden's healthy, and offer fair trade type policies for the laborers, then the workers have it good. If not, the workers suffer greatly. Furthermore, if the plantations do close, the worker is completely out of luck with nary an option in this country of extreme poverty and lack of employment.

In addition, in all of the above circumstances, the female worker often has to deal with an unfortunate home life consisting of unemployed husbands who drink away the salaries and are sometimes abusive. Furthermore, a serious lack of education is rampant throughout this class of population, leading to lack of knowledge about rights, family planning, health care, or the ability to ever be able to do anything else should the job disintegrate. As far as educational options, Dr. Choudhury asserts, there are more opportunities for the current generation of children to go to school than there have been with their parents. However that though there may be opportunties, the truth remains that many parents will simply not allow their children to go to school, possibly due to superstitions and mistrust, or the lack of understanding of education's importance in lifting their children from the generations old plight, and the child may have his or her education cut short if an opportunity for that child to be employed is available.

"It is so disgusting," said Dr. Dutta of the lack of health care and facilities for the people who occupy this region. Her husband, Dr. Anton Das chimed in, "We went there and saw a boy who had something wrong with a vein in his leg. The circulation had stopped and his leg was rotting. It was covered with maggots! It was too late to help him, there was nothing that could be done, his leg had to be amputated."

We sat in their beautiful apartment looking over Siliguri, a city like so many Indian cities, with a dichotomy of tiny pockets of unbounded wealth amidst a sea of unbelievable poverty. We discussed the sad situation of the tea plantations of The Duars, "No one is doing anything," asserted Dr. Das, "Things have been getting worse there for so many years, and nothing is being done. There is a very modern medical facility in the area that only has a doctor once a year that comes from abroad to do optical surgeries. Beyond that, they have no doctors."

"People claim that girls have been kidnapped and traded into prostitution, but I think they have gone willingly. What choice do they have?" said Dr. Dutta. "If there is going to be any change, it has to come from the ground," Dr. Das theorized.

Dr. Das took me back to my hotel and while driving, he sighed. "It gives me shame," he said, "That you should be coming here all the way from the U.S. to help this situation when here in India it is totally forgotten and ignored."

HOPE

Yet there in the plains a light is growing in the form of women who have had enough. I was fortunate to meet 6 governing organizers of an emergent group called The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch (tea plantation women's "space" or gathering place) who remind me in some ways of the Suffragette movement in U.S. history. Against the desires of a society that would see this kind of thing suppressed, a group of mostly tribal women from the very lowest rungs of our global society, The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has formed to provide support and togetherness for the tea workers. They are helping to educate them about their rights as tea workers, as women, and as humans and are leading them in the fight for these rights. I attended the inauguration with my video camera of their humble tin shed quarters this November 2007, and was honored to cut the ribbon. The speeches given by the women who are governing, were inspiring, as were the proud faces of the tea workers whose voice these women are giving rise to. This group, headed by Rita Chetri, a former tea worker who seems to be inspired by the endless threats she has endured, is at the beginning stages of a long battle for badly needed change, and demands for human rights.

These are brave women who endure tangible threats upon their lives on a regular basis. This is a region where the people are essentially completely uneducated, and have not even the ability to sign their names, let alone understand that they have a right to be heard. Basic human rights are transgressed regularly upon the women of this region. All too often rapes of children are endured, as families tell their children not to speak up, but to keep the peace. Afraid of retribution, girls and their families all too often will keep silent. The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has helped in many of these situations, by convincing the victims to make the stories known, and help them in filing reports with the authorities.

In one case, a pre-teen girl was raped by a twenty something boy and her family did not want her to speak out. The women of the Cha Bagan convinced her family to file a report with the authorities. Finding the authorities were bribed the women went beyond to even higher authorities until justice was served to the transgressor and remuneration made to the victim. The time in between saw threats to one of the women of the Cha Bagan who was working closely with the victim, Tara, who hid for her life for two days until the situation was resolved and the perpetrator brought to justice. I asked Tara if she was afraid, and she said that no, she was just very happy to be able to do this work which is making an important difference in peopleƕs lives. "So many people live only for themselves," she said in Hindi, and I translate, "I am so happy to be able to help other people. I did not marry or have any children, so this work, for me, is like having a child. I am that committed to it."

So many of the women of this region are silenced by being at the bottom of the male dominated, planter lorded, tribal class society they live in, and are afraid to speak for fear of retribution from their own families, let alone the societies of their plantation villages. They cannot read and are thus unable to understand the outer society which surrounds them, and do not know how to rise up beyond the subjugation.

A NEW KIND OF MANAGEMENT

According to Dr. Choudhury it is not enough to simply opt for fair trade practices, such as that of the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong that produces a fine Darjeeling Tea; the entire feudal system must be changed. We are seeing the decay of an outdated system. Dr. Choudhury's assertion is that companies such as Tata Tea in which the ownership is not involved with the daily on the ground management practices, are the only hope for sustainable economic growth in India's declining Tea Industry. In these companies, management must answer to the demands of the public stockowners. If the stockowners demand organic, healthy, sustainable farms that employ decently paid laborers and offer humane benefits, stock and profit shares, then the laborers, the gardens, the management, and the stockowners will thrive. It would be, according to Dr Choudhury, a holistic approach.

But this cannot happen without the listening to the demands of grassroots organizations such as the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch. It seems to me that the very bottom of the triangle of our global society are the subjugated women of the lowest classes of class dominated, male dominated societies, of which India is the epitome. It is these voices that need to be heard, and their demands listened to. The women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch are a small candle lighting the way toward a badly needed direction for ethical and sustainable tea production, for the equality and rights of women, and for education and equality for the lowest tribal classes of this society. I hope along with these brave women, to see the ranks and numbers of this grassroots organization join with other like organizations to grow large and to swell in a wave which sends a very positive shock throughout the ranks of tea management, the halls of the Tea Board, the annual stockholder's meetings of the global capital that purchases the tea, and engages a choir that sings in a voice so loud that it echoes through the appalling din of all of India bringing the change this country needs so badly.

CONTACT and ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I wish to thank Piya Chatterjee of the University of California at Riverside for all of her help, and for being an incredible resource. For further information on the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch, please contact Piya at piyachatterjee@yahoo.com. Also I want to rave my gratitude to Sangamitra Bomzon, my incredible assistant and translator without whom I would be useless. Also to Milan Bomzon whose contacts and organizing skills are fantastic, and to Palmu Bomzon who knows how to make a home away from home feel like a palace. For anyone wishing to travel to Mirik, the Bomzon's Hotel Ratnagiri is the best place to stay in this peaceful lakeside town in the shadow of Kanchenjuenga.

The governing women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch pose with me and my assistant Sangamitra.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Whirlwind Tour of the UK

It was three decades since I had been there, and nothing had changed. Only myself, who came then as a girl, now as a middle-aged woman with more ability to appreciate my surroundings. Of course the UK has changed over time, but it seems it did most of its changing long before I came the first time.

But the scenery seems to have miraculously stayed quaint and green. Take the green pastures full of sheep as an example. Once forests grew on those lands, and now they are covered with sheep. Wool, thought I, must be the reason behind the madness. But no…with all the new fibers, wools are less popular, and of the wools that are popular, they do not come from this kind of sheep. Rather the Merino and Kashmir growing flocks provide the favorites for today’s consumer. For fleece warmth, try the polyester growing animals instead.

No, it is not for wool but for meat that these creatures abound. And good meat too, to be found in the pubs that dot the landscape. Almost as many pubs as sheep.. Food has changed quite a lot since the 1970’s, then, a dismal fare was offered; things such as fish flavored chicken or gristle burgers were the mode of the day, the only good thing about it was the ease of staying thin. This time, the food finds were delicious and I’m going to have to whittle myself down again.

John, my traveling companion, and I stayed in an 18th century drafty stone farmhouse with great big rooms. The farm marm, as I like to call her, gave us the lowdown on hoof and mouth disease; the mysterious disease that jumps around, willy nilly, from farm to farm, ruining the lives and livings of the unsuspecting flockherders. It might be the badgers, according to a London Times speculation. I couldn’t help wondering if it’s the, well I guess you could say ‘ranching monoculture’ that pervades the landscape. But what do I know? Very little about that, I can assure you.

Traveling on to Ballantrae, a small village on the coast of Ayrshire in Scotland, I visited my dear Aunt Margaret, who has been inviting me to come since she married a Scot and moved there 27 years ago. The man she married, John Sanderson, I had met a couple of times in the states, but those meetings were so populated with family that I had no chance to notice much about him, other than his enthralling well schooled English accent, and the fact that he wore a kilt.

I found a kinship with him this time, as we have so much in common; from love of great music classics and a passion for travel and culture, to pursuit of creative drives made possible by the invention of electronics. From gardening and prize winning vegetable growing, to the art of choosing the right wine to go with a delicious meal, he’s a cultured and refined delight, and he enjoys cleaning up the kitchen! My aunt’s great love is a rare find indeed, the kind of man worth waiting half a lifetime for. Even if he does have differing views on global warming than I.

My aunt is a lucky woman. Furthermore, she’s a delightful conversationalist, a fantastic cook, and an amazing quilter. I enjoyed so much spending those days with her, a time that until those days, we had never had. We shared precious girl-talk, family gossip, and comforted each other in our fears. I think I forgot to tell her that she has inspired me to take up writing seriously as she is an endless font of encouragement. Since she’s probably reading this, let it be known how much it has meant to me! I was very sad that it had to end so soon, and left Ballantrae knowing I would return, sooner rather than later.

My companion John and I got in the car early on the day of leaving, and hit the motorway for an all day drive down to England’s fine and high living South, stopping for the endless stream of custard tarts to be found along the way. Sleeping that night in Marlborough, we had our evening meal in a haunted pub that resides in Avebury, a village within an ancient stone circle. In the morning, we went back to that circle and marveled at those stones, which also happen to inhabit Avebury’s pastures of sheep.

We saw Silbury mound, which is being explored currently, and renovated. How do you renovate a mound, you wonder? Well, apparently there were tunnels in it, possibly seeking some kind of treasure through the years. Those tunnels were causing the hill to collapse inward. Now, much more is understood about the mound, and those discoveries are being broadcast every few nights on The BBC. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I do know that the tunnels are being filled with chalk to keep the implosion from ruining the mound.

Then, we skirted on down to Stonehenge to admire that profound circle and gawk in awe at the mystery of the whole thing before hightailing it on down to Salisbury, visiting the great gothic cathedral there, which just happens to house the best copy of the four original versions of the Magna Carta, and then had a quick bite to eat, which was an unpleasant experience, before shooting on over to Brighton for an overnight visit with friends of my companion.

It was there that I met Kate, a woman who apparently is my British twin. We had one of those rare times where you meet someone and keep having to state, “Really? Me too!” We stood in the kitchen for at least an hour, drinking coffee and comparing personality traits, and then went upstairs to look at each other’s blogs and link them up. Once we were on our computers, we disappeared into our individual cyber realities and the world faded away without us.

John and I traveled back to London that day, stopping to admire Brighton’s Royal Pavillion, a late 19th century hybrid of highly ornate architecture and decorating styles in a modest palace built for one of the later King Georges. We got stuck on the circle motorway but still managed to get the car back a few minutes before it was due, avoiding a stiff fine.

Back in London in the warmth and friendship of John’s friends Pete and Kim and their lovely daughter Alexa, I set off to explore the town. The underground ‘tube’ is a great way to see the city, albeit expensive in comparison to other mass transits I’ve known. I saw the outside of Westminster Abbey, not wanting to brave the very long line, which is find because I remember it well from my teenage years, before they had lines. I listened to Big Ben, which really doesn’t sound like the electronic San Francisco version at all. Same melody, slightly different rhythm, and I was surprised to find that Big Ben is not as loud!

The next day, I took the trains out to Hampton Court, home of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey and many others I’m glad I did, so grand and fantastic it was. Joining with the crying children, I got lost in the maze. That night with my hosts, I experienced the thrill of the fireworks along with a huge crowd that jammed into a local cricket field to watch in celebration of Guy Fawkes night. The fireworks went on for the better part of an hour. In many places in the UK this celebration is marked with a bonfire, allowing folks to rid their houses of unwanted girth. Not practical in London, fireworks are the replacement, and can be heard and seen for several nights preceding the actual event.

But one of the most amazing sights in England wasn’t even English. I saw them at the British Museum, thanks to the advice of my Aunt Margaret; the Terra Cotta Army, recently unearthed in X’ian, China, the companions of long buried 1st Emperer Qin, dating back to 200 year BC. The exhibit was structured in a way that showed all of the accoutrements of the era first, with the actual statues placed at the end of the exhibit. When I got there I was experiencing so much anticipation that I could not hold back tears.

Qin’s tomb is the unexplored component of the region now. But it is speculated that within his tomb, an entire mini relief of China exists, including the rivers, said to flow with mercury. But it is not likely to be known for quite some time, as excavating the site is forbidden. Perhaps with some future technology they can know without digging. Which is good, because if it is true that there are rivers of mercury underground, it could be quite a toxic adventure.

I stayed a final night at an overpriced airport hotel and boarded a plane. After 24 hours in transit, I arrived back in Mirik, India. Where a tea worker documentary was wanting to be born.

And that is where I am today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lessons From My Sabbatical

My friends dropped me off at the San Francisco Airport in the middle of the night. I left the car and uttered an explicatory “Oh my god!” and with no plan other than to see and be open, I climbed aboard a plane and took off for Asia, destination India, amongst other places. After 22 years of being confined to the duties of motherhood, audio editing work from the confines of my home recording studio, gardening and struggling with my identity in all of my relationships, I needed a coming of age journey. A kind of vision quest. I sold my house and most of my belongings and took a year long sabbatical. Well sort of. I didn’t mention before that I dragged along a field recording kit and hoped I would find stories there.

And I did find them, but I also found my fear. Despite the fact that everyone in my circle was applauding me for having the moxie to go do such a thing, I felt frozen. Although I recorded and photographed with reckless abandon, I found I could not bring myself to interview anyone. Was I a coward?

No. It seemed I was in the process of shedding a very sticky and unwanted identity. In that place, I did not feel confident to ask others to reveal theirs. I wanted simply to be with the people I found over there. Just be together with our language barrier. And so I did.

But first, I went shopping. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to shop, but the Indian shopkeepers were so insistent. For the obligatory visit to Agra’s famous Taj Majal, I hired a guide. After seeing the Taj and the majestic red fort, he insisted I shop. “The fingers of the workers bleed from the wire used to cut the little stones. They are very poor and if you buy something, it helps them,” said the guide about the marble. The seven shopkeepers followed the tracks of my eyes as I surveyed the showroom floor. When my eyes rested longer than two seconds on any one object, a man would take it off the shelf and put it in front of me, then would begin describing all that was special about it. I did not have a clue how I was going to escape. My privileged American guilt in contrast with the horrific poverty of India made me reach for my credit card.

I walked out of the store with pounds and pounds of marble goods wrapped and ready to fit in my already stuffed suitcase. The Indian shopkeepers in cahoots with the tour guides (who get a hefty commission) have the upper hand on we consumer types. They know exactly where the jugular lies. At the end of the day, after several visits to various handicraft outfits, and subsequent rug purchases, I felt sick and empty. I went to the train station early the next morning and dragged my marble laden suitcase to Jaipur.

That’s when I met Ali, the tuk-tuk driving tout who took me for a ride, but first, heaved my very heavy bags up and over the bridge that spanned the train tracks. Ali, who I never should have talked to according to Lonely Planet, advised me to stay at a hotel of his choice, which, luckily, turned out alright after a little fuss and haggle over price. Complaining bitterly about the weight of the suitcase, Ali asked what was inside, and so I told him of my unfortunate purchases. That's when he bluntly pointed out that, “You are stupid.”

“You should return it.” He advised.

“How can I do that?” I asked, “It’s hours back to Agra, and besides, they wouldn’t take it back!”

“Yes they would,” He assured, “This is India, anything is possible.”

And so I did. With a car and Hindi speaking driver arranged for me by somewhat trusty but clearly mischievous Ali, I set off the next morning into the rising partial eclipse of the sun, clearly viewable with the naked eye due to the deep brown haze that blanketed the horizon.

The return to Agra, and the weekend spent with Ali in Jaipur are very long chapters, and though the stories are many and varied, the ultimate goodness is that my load was lightened and for a time, I lost the urge to shop.

I went on to Jodhpur, and from there to Setrawa Village in the remote Thar Desert for a Durga Jagrata. As I rested after retreating from the festivities of the all night ritual, I felt the many hands of the warrior Goddess take me by the arms and shake me hard. I saw her face in my dream. She appeared as an old Indian woman whose skin was falling off her face, exposing her bones. Her eyes were deep and intense and she was staring right into me.

The heat was intense in Rajasthan, it was March and already over 100 degrees. I met Mama Nigama and all my plans changed. We left the blistering heat and headed up to Sikkim, the land of monasteries and mountains. Traveling with three Swiss German people who spoke very little English, I began the process of shedding my skin.


To be continued…

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Poetic Injustice: Fog vs. Marine Layer

Who invented the term ‘Marine Layer’? I’d like to speak with that person about this term that, in many places, has replaced what used to be known simply as ‘fog’. Fog has poetry. Marine Layer does not.

Cloud, Rain, Sleet, Snow, Ice, Wind, Sun, Sky, Marine Layer.
What is wrong with this picture?

A further example:

Finally, the consummate San Francisco auditory delight: the foghorns blowing in a sublime orchestra of tones, ushering in the misty shroud as it seeps through the Golden Gate, slowly settling over Alcatraz and Angel Islands. Ships that can’t be seen join the foghorn symphony warning the pathway ahead with a long reverberating utterance. With a deep inhalation accompanied by the muted choir of the horns, the fog is drawn up over the eastern hills of the bay and into the lungs of the land. The music transports me into the clouds by day, lulls me into sleep by night, and haunts my dreams, from wherever I am on Earth.

Vs.

Finally, the consummate San Francisco auditory delight: the Marine Layer horns blowing in a sublime orchestra of tones, ushering in the Marine Layer as it seeps through the Golden Gate, slowly settling over Alcatraz and Angel Islands. Ships that can’t be seen join the Marine Layer horn symphony warning the pathway ahead with a long reverberating utterance. With a deep inhalation accompanied by the muted choir of the horns, the Marine Layer is drawn up over the eastern hills of the bay and into the inland valleys. The music transports me into the cumulous hydrogen/oxygen clusters by day, lulls me into inert resting state by night, and haunts my rapid eye movement, from wherever I am on the third planet from the sun.

Stupid Marine Layer.

The foghorn paragraph is an excerpt from my article "San Francisco City Sounds".
View article published on American Chronicle online magazine.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Competing in the Modern World

The required skill set for independent contributors to the current media marketplace is manifold. For radio submissions alone, an indie must be skilled as:

An audio technician.
A computer junkie.
A great interviewer.
A bitchin' writer.
A persistant journalist.
A brutal editor.
An awesome storyteller.
A narrator with ‘the voice’.
A sociologist or anthropologist and/or extremely well read.
Sensitive and compassionate about inequities.
A musician (Actually, not necessary but it seems so many are, indeed one wonders how many came to public radio due to their involvement in music.)
A thorough researcher.
A good marketer.
Excellent at sales and follow up.
Able to create extra time out of nowhere to listen regularly to every episode of all the programs on all public and foreign outlet radio so they are thoroughly prepared to pitch to that show’s exact style and flare.
Able to drink 10 cups of coffee in a single shot, 10 times a day.
Fearless
Rich, or married to someone who can support them.

Keeping current with contemporary media options, (and one must or they may be left behind, because as one knows, this is The Way of Progress) add photography, videography, web design, blogging, web presence management, video editing, creative slideshow creation, hours spent on researching solicitation opportunities online, oh, and the ability to pull money out of nowhere to pay for the endless supply of equipment and updates needed. If one can master all of the above, one finds they have themselves a skill set to reckon with!

And truly, once one has mastered a skill set such as that, should one really have to ask for fair remuneration for their efforts? Yes, methinks, to ask, perchance, to eat…

Sigh,

Cat

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Walkabout

In the morning, freshly revived from the feeling of sadness induced by having her first submission rejected the night before, she received a phone call from a friend and colleague who needed advice on a Pro Tools technical question. Although she had never met this woman in person, she had spent hours with her on the phone over the years, both training her, and just chatting in general. They had become close. She went outside to the perch at the top of the stairs and talked on the phone while staring out over the bay. The view was impeccably clear. She could even see the windmill on Angel Island, the tines of which would often disappear in a hint of haze. The friend suggested she contact a woman living and working in Asia and who might possibly become an important mentor in the pursuit of her career. When she heard this revelation, she felt a strange feeling; it was hard to explain, kind of like a warm feeling that said 'yes'. What it meant, however, was that she might need to spend a significant portion of her life living and working in Kathmandu.

Immediately the fear began to set in. She went out for a walk around the city to clear her mind. Meandering through the city, she found herself down at Fisherman's Wharf. Tourists dressed in San Francisco t-shirts and khaki shorts, weighing more than is healthy ambled by, licking ice cream cones and eating cotton candy. Deep in her own thoughts, she hurried by a number of local street artists: a man beating on various pots and pans in excellent rhythms, several mimes who painted themselves silver and did hip hop dance routines on milk carts. A lone saxophone player blasted his horn into her ear as she passed and she quickly reached up to protect her already damaged hearing.

Her ears were still ringing from her sojourn to Kathmandu earlier in the year. This happened because she failed to take precautions to protect herself from the un-muted honks of the motorbikes which crowd the narrow streets; the sound magnified by the surrounding buildings would cause her to double over in pain. That combined with a genetic disposition for tinnitus caused an irreversible hearing loss.

And now she might go to Kathmandu for a while. A long while. It is possible she may have the opportunity to study journalism with a Fulbright Scholar who is busy setting up radio and print operations over there, and that she, in turn could help this woman because of her wealth of technical expertise. The drawback? She would have to leave her family and friends behind, of whom she is quite attached, and be really incredibly brave.

On the other hand, she has never felt more of a sense of freedom in her life than she did when she was in Kathmandu. And at this moment, there really are no reasons why she shouldn't do it. She wondered if she would step up to the plate of what has been calling her for years. If it wasn't going to happen now, it might not ever happen and she might have to settle into some kind of menial desk job that didn't suit her personality at all.

Of course, she realized that all of these thoughts were presumptuous. After all, she hadn't spoken to or even shared an e-mail exchange with this person. And yet, it was as if some kind of earthquake was just starting to rumble within her, and it was going to be a very large temblor.

She would need to sit with this for a while, until the next chapter revealed itself. It did occur to her that perhaps the attenuated earplugs she bought for her next trip to Asia were quite a fortuitous purchase.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On living, dying and birthdays

Yesterday I found out about the deaths of two friends; a completely unrelated coincidence. I wasn't very close to either, yet both people influenced my life in one way or another. The first, a friend from high school, died several months ago of alcoholism. In school, she introduced me to Monty Python, Queen, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We went to see Queen at the San Diego Sports Arena together back in 1977. Lori always made me laugh and I loved knowing her then. Her leaving reverberates in a very sad way through my system. I am sorry that I didn't even know that she was living right here in San Francisco all these years, probably mere blocks from where I am now.

The second, a sweetest soul, Diane Bodach died last week surrounded by family and friends. She was a poet, and I knew her because of that. She would come to my house years ago, to record poetry for the radio show I worked on. We would sit in the garden and talk about existentially spiritual matters, and her eyes were always beaming love. But her body was weak, ravaged by cancer and other immune deficiencies, she shook and could not stand or even sit upright for long. This only seemed to sweeten and lighten her, and I'm sure that when she went, it was a direct ascension to the angels.

The memorial is in a month, and it looks to be fantastic. It got me thinking, why is it that the best party of someone's life; the one where that person is finally fully acknowledged for all they do, all they contribute, who they really are, does not happen until they are gone and can't participate? Why are there not living memorials?

I shed a goodbye tear for both my friends.

I was born on this day 47 years ago. Today is a warm autumn day in the city and I will walk about in it, grateful for each step I am taking and each breath I inhale.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

City Sounds

Today, as it has done every Tuesday for my entire life, the sirens sounded at noon, echoing through San Francisco. No longer needed, the former air raid siren is now just the relic of a warning system. As a child of the 60s the sound used to cause nightmares of nuclear holicaust. Right up there with the school imposed practice of dropping under the desk in case of the A-bomb. I'm glad we lived to realize how futile that little effort would have been.

In North Beach, the sound of Big Ben has been placed into a loudspeaker at St. Peter and Paul, and is broadcast every 15 minutes from 9 to 6 every day. Because of this, I thought I knew the sound of a bell. Then, in 1977, I went to Europe; I heard a toll that simply can't be duplicated. We don't have that sound here. There are other bells here, and they are lovely, but they do not hit you in the solar plexus and force you to come to church.

A constant whining tone can be heard from my flat. I don't know what it is. It is some kind of industrial sound that seems to come from the direction of the sewer plant near Fisherman's Wharf. My father has lived in this flat for 40 years, and he has heard it as long. He has asked many if they hear it, but no one does, except me. Not only do I hear it, but I hear the accompanying minor second that joins it from time to time, ringing dissonance throughout the town. Dissonance that no one else seems to hear but we two.

Sea lions bark at each other from their perches at Pier 39. They are the best part of Pier 39, a conglomeration of Disney style shops on a pier that was built to replace another pier that burned down in the 70's in a spectacular fire. Boats honk from the wharf. When a cruise ship backs up out 0f its pier, it gives 3 long and low blows. That's what tells me to come and watch as it starts its journey out the Golden Gate and into the open sea.

The rolling of the Powell and Mason cable car line running under the street to pull the cars sounds from 6:00 am to midnight. It is always a quiet day around here when the line is shut down for repairs. The operator rings the cable car bell in rhythmic beats, the tourists scream in an E-Ride thrill as the car flies down Mason Street. Formerly, it was a mode of transportation for San Francisco residents. Now, at five dollars a ride, it is simply a charming tourist attraction.

A relatively new sound to the auditory landscape of this city is the chattering of parrots. A number of years ago, some were let loose somehow and they now dominate the city. They dine on pine nuts and other delicacies they find on local trees, and seem to have found a great niche here. They fly in flocks to and from various favorite enclaves and are quite vocal. Noisy yes, but endearing.

Sounds that annoy: The pile drivers, the car alarms, the youngsters in the flat next door at 2:00 am, the concerts in Washington Square which should be banned for disturbing the peace, The Blue Angels. Wait, The Blue Angels? Yes. Love to watch, love to hear, but the cost of flying those planes, and the waste...those thoughts are always present and almost as loud as the jets themselves in the spectacle of their Fleet Week visit.

Finally, the consummate San Francisco auditory delight; the fog horn. A quiet symphony of tones when the fog is thick, to lull me into sleep. The sound that haunts my dreams, from wherever I am on Earth.