Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Hideous Vulnerability of Slum-dwelling Children

I had a very fitful night's sleep last night because my mind was taken up with thinking about a little girl from one of the other classes at my afternoon school. She died suddenly on Monday night after vomiting 60% of her blood.

We don't yet know exactly what caused her illness, which came upon her only on Friday or Saturday. But apparently she went to an unqualified doctor in her neighborhood and only when things became dire did they take her to the hospital.

I know children die everyday and that these freak illnesses happen even among privileged children. But I know the children I teach are just more vulnerable to such things. They are poor, live in rather unsanitary surroundings, don't have clean water to drink, don't seem to have a huge amount of adult supervision, live very close to a lot of people, etc., etc., etc. And I guess I couldn't sleep because I have come to absolutely adore so many of these children and the thought of some of them falling victim to illnesses that really ought to be curable is really too much to stand.

I didn't know the little girl who died. I'd probably met her on the school bus at some point, but she was in another class and there isn't a lot of interclass interaction here. Apparently she was very bright and responsible.

There are horrible things at work in this world. Yes, I'm going to start a diatribe. People are greedy; they think the invisible hand will somehow take care of everything while they live the high life. People condemn poor people without attempting to understand them. Too many traditions and societies circumscribe too heavily women's activities and then ridicule and devalue these "approved" activities. And it is imperative that women and their roles be valued. It should come as no surprise that infant and child mortality rates are almost always directly tied to female literacy rates. The higher the literacy rates, the lower the child mortality rates.

I am ending the diatribe because I don't like them. They always sound self-righteous.

I love the children I work with. I was just sitting in the corner watching my afternoon class work today and they were so dilligent and interested in what they were doing and working well together and not fighting and are just so over the top beautiful.

At any rate, I am uncomfortable with all of the public display of emotion. And I'm late to meet my friends for a dance concert. I shall leave you with my afternoon kids' vocabulary word list of the day:


Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Home Visit

So yesterday, the head teacher of the center I teach at in the morning took me to my kids' neighborhood. They live down in the very very south part of Bombay in a place called Cuffe Parade (Cuff'rade for those who are in the know). Where they live is definitely considered a slum, but the houses are made of actual concrete rather than some of the flimsier materials I've seen slum-and pavement-dwellers using for their homes. It seems that ten years ago the Cuff'raders did live in more makeshift houses but there was a huge fire that destroyed everything and they got these new houses.

Cuff'rade is a maze of very narrow paths flanked by houses and little shops. The fathers of all the children I interviewed yesterday work as what I guess is called ragpickers, though they do not actually collect rags. They collect used bottles and newspapers and sell them to people who then sell them to somebody else. I'm a little unclear on how it works. At any rate, they make around 50 rupees a day, which is slightly over a dollar. And most of them are the sole breadwinners for their households; the mothers' work is primarily in their homes. It is quite dizzying to me to think of raising a family on that little money. And it makes me so honored that even with such a paucity of worldly goods, they were so generous to me last night, so hospitable.

I went to the neighborhood to talk to some of the parents to tell them about my project with the kids. Basically I will be interviewing the kids about their lives and then giving them single-use cameras so they can document whatever they want to of their surroundings. So first I went to R's house. R is probably the best student in my class. He's very smart, he communicates well in English, and he's more well-behaved than almost any other child. And when I saw him in his natural habitat, I saw that he is definitely the ring-leader among his peers. He may have just been showing off for me...remember how weird you would get when you spent time with teachers after hours when you were a kid?

Anyway, I talked to R's mom, K's sister, G's aunt, and N's grandma about their lives. These women were so beautiful and the grandmother especially very eager to talk. They are the ones who told me about Cuff'rade's history. They told me about how little schooling they'd had in their childhoods...some had none and some made it only to about the 4th grade.

After I'd talked to the women, I interviewed five of the students from my class and two from the class that we share a classroom with. I will have to interview some of them again with an interpreter, but a few of my students speak English well enough that they could give me sufficient answers. I also took photographs of everybody, which they loved.

R's mom invited me to stay for dinner, which was so divine. It was just rice, chapati (bread), and some very spicy, flavorful pea dish. Oh, it was so good...almost too spicy even for me (I can take a lot of spice), but just bearable enough that it definitely ranks among the best meals I've ever had.

Anyway, after I'd eaten, everybody else's parents wanted me to come to their houses too. So I had to make the rounds and sit in everybody's house for a few minutes. At each place I went, they wanted to give me a Coke. So I drank I think four Cokes. I felt really bad when I found out they were going out and buying these Cokes especially for me, but I really couldn't refuse. The best part of this story of course is that I had already had to to go to the bathroom for three hours when I got to Cuff'rade, and I ended up staying there for more than 4 hours. For those of you acquainted with my bladder, you know what a feat this was. Four Cokes and 7 hours!

Anyway, enough about bodily functions. Actually, no... As you may have inferred from my having to hold it for ever and ever yesterday, there don't seem to be any real bathrooms around the neighborhood. When R's mother had to go to the bathroom, she sent all of the boy children out and she took care of business there in the house in the little tiled area that has a drain in the middle of it. That was also where she threw any waste water from cooking. There is no running water in the houses; she had to fetch water probably from a common tap.

The houses are all one room, all around the same size, which is very small. R's house seemed more spacious than most other houses I went to, mainly because I can tell his mother runs a very very tight ship. Everything was very organized and clean (and she didn't even know I'd be coming over). I can see where R gets his exactness and perfectionism. I don't want to diminish the difficulty of these people's lives, but I have a different perspective now of very small dwelling places. When we from America think of living in such a small area with so many in a family, we think it would be absolutely unbearable. But we in America are also very much fond of our private property and boundaries, and we spend a lot of time in our houses. These people live in such a tight community that though they may be proprietors of only one room, they seem to always be in and out of everybody else's houses, and the streets and other common areas really do act as extensions of the livingspace. They have access to much more than just their little room. Again, all this is based just on my experience of one day, so take it with a grain of salt. But if these people lived in their houses the way Americans do, I can imagine it would be unbearable. But they make it work by forming communities of trust with their neighbors.

Oh, not only was I showered in Coke, I was also given stickers, a headband, and nail polish. Such generous people! Man. I don't even know what to say about it. Except I guess that I wish I were more generous like that.

At any rate, it was a fabulous evening, and I'm sure I'll be going a few more times over the coming weeks. I will keep you posted.

Oh! Another interesting thing. I interacted almost exclusively with women while I was in Cuff'rade; the men were for the most part not home from work yet. But a couple of men did come by, and whenever they did, the women covered their heads with their saris. And whenever I took photos of them, they covered their heads too.

Okay. This is becoming a disjointed, jumpy post, so I shall end it now.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I Am Okay

Most of you probably know by now that I am okay. In case you didn't, I am okay.

My group and I were outside of the city when the bombs went off, but only by the grace of God. We were on an overnighter that was supposed to have taken place the previous week, but it was postponed because we had flooding here last week. (I realize I didn't write about the floods. We were stuck inside for pretty much 2 1/2 days, but on the way home from work when the floods started, I had to wade in knee-deep water in the streets of Bombay, which are grody to the max. THEN these horrible boys SPLASHED me and then I fell TWICE.) Anyway if it hadn't been for the floods, we'd have had our overnight last week and would have thus been in the city this week. And a couple of my friends get on and off at some of the rail stations that were hit and would have been traveling around the time the bombs hit. Since I work in the south part of the city, I wouldn't really have been in harm's way; the trains don't run as far south as I work and all of the blasts were in stations in northern Bombay anyway.

I honestly don't know too much about the blasts because we couldn't get a lot of news where we were (a sort of socialist farming and manufacturing enterprise a couple hours outside the city) and we've been back only a couple of hours. We've just been calling our families and emailing and haven't had time to plant ourselves in front of the TV and get all the info. But I do know this: I am SICK of people bombing people. People just trying to go home from work on the train. For Pete's sake. I know that these issues are complicated. I know that life is not Star Wars and that there is much more to this than black and white, good and evil. I know that poverty and oppression and exploitation breed things that I can't fully understand. But heavens.

In the words of my lovely lovely late voice teacher Rachel, What CAN you do? I guess part of reason I'm studying international affairs is to try to answer such a question, but I feel like all my studies have done is make me feel that these problems are insurmountable because they are caused by so many variables, hidden or obvious. ACK.

Friday, July 07, 2006

More pictures!

A sign that could be on an unfortunate number of buildings in Bombay.
Guys making bread.
A neat detail on a temple.
A doorway.
Some temple. Jain? Hindu? I'm sorry I don't remember?

These guys rent the hoodspace from businessmen's parked cars to hawk their wares.
Streets of Bombay.
Another view from the Y...more orange flowers.

The building across from my host institution.

The closeup of the building. Neat, eh?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

An Epic and Dangerous Weekend

Last weekend, some of the girls and I went to a town called Matheran. It is a hill station, which as far as I can gather just means it's a small town in the mountains.

Matheran is reached by taking about an hour-and-a-half long train ride from Bombay to Neral. If it is rush hour, you will get to be smashed and shoved during nearly this entire hour-and-a-half. At Neral, you catch a cab that takes you (much too quickly) up a windy mountain road. If you are really lucky, you will get a flat tire on the way up. We were so fortunate. At a certain point, no more automobiles are allowed on the mountain and you trek the rest of the way. If you happen to miss a couple of trains out of Bombay and are thus two hours later than you meant to be, chances are you will have the lovely experience of the path lights going out and being left in the pitchest of pitch darks you have ever been in. But it will be misty and windy and the epitome of everything you thought India was supposed to be when you were a little girl. You won't have felt anything like the air unless you've spent time in the tropical zone at the zoo. Or, obviously, if you've been to India or the tropics before.

Then you may recall that at a wedding last summer in the mountains of Utah, someone gave you a pocket flashlight to navigate up another pitch dark road. And the flashlight is still in your purse. So you and your traveling companions on the road to Matheran now have a little more light. In a spirit of good will, and because you got the flashlight in a similar way, you hand it off to a man on the path when you decide to stop at the very first hotel you see.

But at the first hotel, you might encounter some rather surly proprietors who refuse to give your group of five more than one towel and who, when you complain about paying 1500 rupees for a cabin with a lockless frosted glass door and no water (so what would the towel be for anyway?), KICK YOU OUT INTO THE DARKEST NIGHT. After some pleading on your part, they may give you a guide with a little blue penlight to take you to a different hotel.

You may find a new hotel that seems to be rather posh until you enter and see that it is definitely a faded glory with a dirty indoorish swimming pool overflowing with rain water coming through the roof. When you have finally settled down for the night, sharing a bed with two compadres while the other two snooze on a fold-out sofa, and drifted off to sleep, one of your friends may yell HEY!! And she will have yelled this because she saw a MAN ON YOUR BALCONY SHINING A BLUE FLASHLIGHT AT YOU ALL.

And at this point you may get very sick of writing in conditionals and suspect your readers may be very sick of reading them. So you stop writing in them and start writing like a normal person.

So S saw a MAN on our balcony! When she yelled, he ran off, so nothing happened. But we still informed the management and packed up and moved to another room. Poor S didn't sleep that night or for the next two nights. I for some reason was absolutely not affected by the incident, though the next night I guess I did dream about it. Hm. Subconscious blah blah blah.

The next day we decided to find a new hotel and found a very modest one in a more central location. We all stayed in one room again, with S, N and I in one bed and J and J in the foldout. I guess we felt safer that way.

It was very rainy and misty the whole time in Matheran, which was lovely but also unfortunate because apparently the town overlooks a breathtaking valley. Ah well. We went for a tromp around the lake nearby (Lake Charlotte). S, N and I (we have become quite the trio) climbed through the barbed wire fence down to the lake shore and nearly got blown off our feet. It was so windy by the water and so misty. We couldn't see more than 10 feet out over the water and we were convinced the Loch Ness monster would leap out of the fog at us. It was thrilling and sinister. I could have stood there forever.

We tromped and tromped and got very wet but it was lovely to feel cold since it's just been so boiling our whole time in India.

That night we played Uno in our hotel restaurant, which took forever to bring our food. The power kept coming on and off so we had to try to play in candlelight and it was very jolly.

The next day, S, N, and I decided to go horseback riding and visit the different valley lookout points. Of course it was raining like mad but we went anyway. The horses were nice and tame, but it was annoying because the horse guys, instead of leading us on their own horses, just walked along side us, calling to our horses and at times taking our horses by the reins and leading them. As if we'd never ridden horses before in our lives. Okay, S hadn't (or maybe she had once). But N is very experienced, and I took riding for one of my PE credits in college so I am not a complete dunce. At any rate, after I fell off my horse, I guess they thought I was the Queen Moron and stuck to me like glue. Yes, I fell off my horse. Here is what happened. We had to get off our horses to visit the lookout points (I guess so they wouldn't leap off any cliffs with us on their backs). I had been climbing onto things to get onto my horse because I did not trust my strength to hoist myself on without incident. But at one lookout point, I got bold and thought "I can certainly dismount a horse. Heavens." But I forgot that I was not wearing riding shoes but rather the only shoes I brought to India...sandals. So my top strap got hooked on the stirrup and down I went onto my arse and flush in front of my horse's front legs. He started to walk backwards, and if he had continued I may have been carried off the mountain with a broken ankle. But I had the presence of mind to tell the guide to "STOP HIM" and all was well. I laughed my head off and I think the guides were relieved I wasn't a) dead, b) maimed or c) angry. From then on, like I said, they stuck to me like glue.

By the way, the views, even though it was very rainy, cloudy, misty, and foggy, were quite spectacular. I took some pictures that I'll post one of these days.

But now here comes the real story of the trip that made it one of the most exhilarating, glorious weekends of my life. I do not exaggerate.

J and J wanted to leave earlier than S, N and I. So the three of us were left alone. We ate and shopped. (I got some of my nephews sling shots...bad idea?) N and I decided to take rickshaws down to the taxi stand. I'd always wanted to take one because I played a song on the piano when I was a kid called "In a Rickshaw" and there was an illustration in the book. At any rate, S did not want to take a rickshaw because she didn't like the idea of another human being pulling her in a cart. And she was right not to. It was horrible! It's horrible to have another person pulling you along. N and I vowed we would not ever take another rickshaw in our lives. But at least we did it once.

So then we took a cab down to the train station with a man and his two fabulous little girls. The older wanted to be a pediatrician and the younger a geologist. She showed us a beautiful geode she had found on the mountain. There were lovely vistas all the way down the mountain that I have pictures of too.

Anyway, so we bought second class tickets back to Bombay and got on the platform to wait for the train. On Indian trains, there are general seating cars and ladies' cars. It is very desirable to take a ladies car otherwise you might get stared at or "accidentally" touched. But we were standing in the wrong place for the 2nd class ladies car and ended up on the 1st clas ladies car. We felt bad and decided to get off at the next stop and run for the 2nd class car. N had a big rolling suitcase that made it hard for her to run for anything, but we gave it a good go.

S hopped onto the train and so did I just as it started going, but I turned around and N was still running for it with her big fat suitcase and I just knew she wouldn't make it. The only thought in my mind was that we shouldn't get separated so I LEAPED from the moving train and landed on my arse for the second time that day. I sat and laughed hysterically while men leaned out of the train doors, laughing and telling me to get up. N came to me but then looked up horrified and I thought she saw S whizzing away without us. But no. What she saw was S LEAPING from the train as well and landing on the slanted part of the platform right before it ends and grass, a ditch, and a big fat POLE begin. She landed and bounced onto HER arse and everybody gathered around her and SHE was laughing hysterically and N started laughing too and we just all laughed our heads off as the train sped out of sight. Then we sat on our bags and had a rainy repast of chocolate Indonesian cookies, some kind of delectable nutty cookie, and green olives. Every so often we would burst into laughter that S and I had LEAPED FROM A MOVING TRAIN. The surroundings were so idyllic...fields and cows and rain and colorfully-clad people. And we sat and ate sacramental chocolate and olives and had just LEAPED FROM A MOVING TRAIN. And I had a flash of the future of us being Important People, diplomats maybe, meeting up at a shindig and telling people about how back in graduate school when we were travelling in India, we leaped from a moving train together.

When we got onto the train, N and I ate samosas that a man was selling and talked about our future plans and talked about how glad we were to be friends. S had gone in another door and the train was crowded enough that she couldn't see us. After enough people shifted, there was room for her across from us and we stood up and shouted her name (for which we got laughed at) and she came and sat with us and we talked and listened to some teenage girls sing and played with two beautiful little boys who sat on their mother's and grandmother's laps and who got very messy eating the last of our Indonesian cookies that we gave to them (much to the grandmother's chagrin...luckily we had napkins to clean them up with).

S said that she felt she could do anything after leaping from a moving train, and I felt that way too. We shall see...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Still Not All the Pictures, but I'm Getting There...

There really are cows on the streets. This cow is in the neighborhood that is roughly equivalent to Wall Street.

A Hindu temple at which there was some convention of Hari Krishnas.

The city from Chowpatty Beach

Near my hostel.
The view from the YMCA. See the orange flowers!

A sort of dumb picture. Ah well.

The beach.