Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Week 14: Two Conferences
Pictured here is the Rockwood Palace Resort and Spa, where one of two Conferences we attended last week was held. Located in the city of Udaipur, in the state of Rajasthan (3 hours on the air from where we live in Kerala), the Rockwood really was like a Palace. Spacious rooms, huge swimming pool, fancy meals with unending desserts, and even unlimited alcohol (on some days) were part of the package that Fulbright Scholars from all over India were treated to for three days and four nights. Your tax money at work?
While a few others shared my discomfort regarding such fancy accomodations, most enjoyed the ``good life`` to the max -- thinking little about what ``good`` should mean. As U.S. citizens, are we entitled to a life of luxury in a world where over 1/3 of humanity lives on less than $2/day (and half of those subsist on slow starvation diets)? If not entitled, should we enjoy such a life when it is given to us for even a few days? I confess to having enjoyed it some... So is there then hypocracy in the gap between my basic values and my actions? YES. Admitting this, my perfectionist personality leaves me with a bittersweet taste.....
One afternoon I escaped from the over-stimulation of continuous 1-15 minute presentations from intellectually brilliant people and met Malik, an auto-rickshaw driver. Malik is Muslim, with a family of four to feed and provide for on a net income of about $5/day. Well off by Indian standards, he has learned passable English over the years by providing transportation to tourists. Udaipur is a city full of historic Rajput palaces, lakes, museums, and amazing artwork. He seemed more than a little surprised when I asked him to take me anywhere he might like, really anywhere. So it was that I enjoyed two hours talking with him while he introduced me to his Mosque and several (including Hindu) friends. At one such stop, an employee of one of his friends had a major seizure in which he lost consciousness and bit his tongue with the blood staining his shirt. I felt very good about my role in the medical emergency and worked with others to help the person successfully through the crisis of this day. Even so, returning to the Rockweeod Palace to the Fulbright Conference, I knew that this man`s seizures would likely continue untreated by any doctor, as the modest cost of medications would almost certainly be beyond his income to purchase....
On March 11th morning we departed by automobile from Udaipur to Ahmadabad (in the state of Gujarat). Our driver was Mr. Singh, a Hindu with two pierced ears (like me) indicating his kshatriya (warrior) family heritage. Our 5 hour trip cost 5,750 rupees (about $120) -- which was cheap, considering we had five passengers in the car (including two students living in Ahmadabad who joined Kris, Shaman, and I free of charge). Train tickets for the five of us would have cost more! Still, getting to know Mr. Singh (plus a little math) informed me that he would earn only 200 rupees for his full day of driving (5 hours with us, then 5 hours to return to his family in Udaipur). He was very happy that my tip (not customary) doubled his income for the day from less than $5 to about $9. Was that generous? Even considering the fact that $1 here really carries a purchasing power of $4, could we in the U.S. cover our family expenses for $36/day? How about less than $4? (as over 100 million people in India have
inclomes of under $1/day)???
In Ahmadabad I was one of six (supposedly) expert speakers at an International Conference on Global Warming. Invited primarily due to the status given to Fulbrighters (and maybe a little related to my expertise regarding Gandhi and my serving on the national committee of the U.S. Green Party), I shared the limelight with people like the Governor of Gujarat and a retired India Supreme Court Justice. Crazy, huh? They may have thought so -- as I was the only major speaker at the Conference who was very critical of Globalization (Free Trade) and its supporters (Prime Minister Monmohan Singh and President Obama). This surprised many in the audience of 350, though quite a few expressed gratitude for my comments in private. Most middle-class Indians are quite supportive of free trade policies, though they are aware of the increasing economic disparity it has so far produced. Many believe that the benefits will eventually trickle down -- while others (including Gandhi) do not share this faith.
The real highlights of our three days in Ahmadabad included a 6-hour visit with my Indian sister Dina Patel, residing at the Gandhi Ashram Guest House (where I previously resided for a week in 1972!), and being able to join in a 2-mile walk commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Salt March which began from Gandhi Asram on March 12, 1930. Over 1,000 people participated in the walk this year, with me being (as far as I could see) the only caucasian face. It was a spiritual experience for me, reinforcing my evolving view that inter-related crises in ecology, economic globalization, and militarism require a global independence movement today. Starting with baby steps myself, I intend to be more of a nonviolent soldier in my lifestyle as well as in my public life.
From the Rockwood Palace and a medical emergency, to a Global Warming Conference and commemorating the largest civil disobedience campiagn in the history of the world -- it has been a week full of too many experiences to easy digest. Hopefully this next week will allow time for reflection. Those who may have read this entry are most welcome to share their thoughts with me. How shall we live with ourselves? with others? -- and with more humor than I have shared here!!!! In next weeks` entry I will seek to discuss more of the funny side to some of our life experiences.