Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 24: Goodbye to India

There are too many memories and emotions embodied in these past six months to try to capture them all in any one picture. As we depart from India to Italy this day, my thoughts are especially with students and staff associated with St. Thomas College. Here is the community that has welcomed me both in the classroom and in their hearts. Our group photo includes many but not all of those with whom I worked. Seated in the center is Dr. K.K. Jose, the Principal (who we would call President) of the College. The lengthy conversations he and I have shared have laid a strong foundation for what should emerge as an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between St. Thomas College and Portland Community College (in Oregon) that may include a future student exchange program between the two institutions.

Much effort this week has been devoted to my completing a Final Report to the Fulbright folks regarding experiences relevant to my grant. Put simply, I was surprised to discover that various accomplishments during these 24 weeks include: 1) team-teaching 4 courses relating to Gandhian Thought, American Government, International Relations, and Nonviolent Action, 2) publishing four articles relating to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Aristotle, and the Green Movement, and 3) delivering 24 presentations to a wide range of conferences, seminars, educational institutions, and community organizations. 2/3rds of the six months was spent in the beautiful southern state of Kerala, while the other two months involved traveling with speaking engagements in five other states of India. What an amazing collage of experiences, squeezed into such a compact period of time.....

By far the most wonderful memories are associated with people. The family of my teaching colleague, Stany Thomas, has taken us into their hearts and into their home. Much of this last week has been spent with Stany, his wife (Shanty) three children (Tom, Anna, and Hanna), his parents and his aunt where they all helped first Kristine, and then both Naomi and Mira recover from minor illnesses. It was with the loving support of this family that have enabled me to overcome computer problems that enabled me to both complete my Final Fulbright Report and write this blog entry (before we lose wireless internet access later today)!

Being able to share quality time with a few of those from my first visit to India (for six months in 1971-72) has been extremely special. Dina Patel, my spiritual sister and a soul mate: I am so grateful for our paths being able to cross three times during these six months -- and am very hopeful that you may come see us in the U.S. when your grand project is successfully completed (the republishing of the entire Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi). Laxmi Satyavrata, my friend from those challenging weeks in Calcutta, when birth was given to the nation of Bangladesh: may your friends bring you joy in your twilight years, as your light will always shine in our lives. Memories of others, mostly of this world no more, remind us both of our own mortality and of the blessings that each day may bring if we allow it to.

Other St. Thomas College people will be forever in our thoughts. Our neighbor Chumar and his wife, and the son whose marriage we were all able to attend just two days ago! K.V. Thomas, whose stimulating conversations about culture (as well as soccer!) have produced a lasting bond. Dr. Jose, our landlord, who gave welcomed us into his own home for two nights this week, has always shown great kindness. Stanys good friend, Mohammed Rasheed, who took time away from his duties at M.E.S. College Nekandum to show us the lovely backwaters of Kerala. So... so many others are also worthy of mention, but time is short -- and my internet connection will soon expire in a short time! Father Mathew, another good friend, will arrive to help transport the four of us to the airport at Kochi, where we will see Mira and Naomi off, enjoy a dinner with Father Mathew`s sister and family, and then go back for our departure from India.

FYI: our plan for the next two months is as follows: Mira and Naomi will take a flight this evening to Bangalore, then to Frankfurt (Germany), meeting Kristine and I in Rome late tomorrow. Kris and I depart early tomorrow morning and arrive in Rome (via Doha) earlier than our daughter and Naomi. Next week our blog entry will detail some of the adventures of the four of us in Rome. Following that week, we part ways, with Mira and Naomi traveling together in Europe (Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Czech Republic), while Kris and I will spend a total of three weeks in Italy and three more in Palestine -- before the four of us reunite together in Egypt for the last two weeks of July. August 1st we all fly to the U.S. from Rome, with Mira and Naomi going directly to Portland, while Kris and I will enjoy a one-week stopover in Chicago (seeing the Pierie Clan!) before returning to Portland on August 8th.

Enough for now. We must quickly complete our packing. There is also much activity relating to the funeral for a neighbor of Stany and Shanty: an untimely death of a taxi driver by heart attack at age 42, leaving behind his wife and two young children. The outpouring of support for this poor man`s family is nothing less than inspiring: from covering the funeral expenses to arranging future payments of his home mortgage (his first, approved by the bank only two months ago). In a nutshell, this is a fitting last memory of India: a land of great beauty and great poverty, where the strength of relationships provides the only true security that any of us may have. Not wealth, not military might, but people helping people -- at times reflecting what was once described by Martin Luther King as the Beloved Community....

It is my hope that these weekly reflections have been useful to each of you. It may be that what little we can share of our experiences here may relate to and feed the spirit of love in your own lives. Please be patient with future postings, as they may be as irregular as our future access to the internet, They should come near the beginning of each week, but we will see what is possible.

Goodbye to India for now. I have no doubt that I will be here again, if even it may be in the next lifetime.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Week 23: Rishikesh & Manali

This photograph was taken by daughter Mira while flying in a helicopter over the Himalayas! Unbelievable, yes? How she came to have that chance is part of the experience of this last week. So read on!

The week began with us escaping from the 110 degree temperatures of Delhi and Agra, by taking an overnight bus north to Rishikesh where cooler climates once attracted the Beatles to the banks of the upper Ganges river. Kristine, Mira, and her friend Naomi got almost no sleep since the bus was not air conditioned (as had been promised) and was so overcrowded that some of the children ended up lying on the floors! Although I did sleep, a bad travel experience became worse when the bus unloaded all passengers in Haridwar (even though our ticket stated we had paid to be taken the remaining 7 miles to Rishikesh)! Thankfully, three Indian lawyers I had conversed with on the bus intervened with the driver on our behalf, forcing him to pay for an auto rickshaw to transport us the rest of the way. The travel nightmare did not end in Rishikesh, as it took another hour (including another auto rickshaw, a bicycle rickshaw, a taxi, and a ride (for Kris) on the back of a motor scooter across a footbridge spanning the Ganges – for us to arrive, exhausted, at out hotel.

During our three full days in Rishikesh, the girls enjoyed shopping (without the verbal harassment and bargaining common to Delhi) and we all enjoyed the cooler night temperatures (though daytime still was in the 90`s). A highlight of one day was the four-hour drive thru Rajaji National Park in an open jeep. Our 40km ``safari`` included a beautiful arid jungle complete with dry riverbeds, narrow rocky roads up and down very substantial hills, and lots of wild elephant dung but no wild elephants! Wildlife we did see included eagles, vulchers, wild peacocks, kingfisher birds, lemur families, playful monkeys, wild boar, and scores of different varieties of deer – but no sightings of the reclusive tiger and leopards that feed on them. Mira and Naomi were also sad not to see any king cobras, though their dismay was not much shared by Kristine. I was happy just to smell the fresh air and hear the many sounds of life left free of unwanted human contact.

The automobile drive to Manali took two days, navigating about 300 miles of winding roads at an average speed of about 20 miles per hour! A combination of drugs and the kindness of the women (who insisted I sit in the front with the driver) saved me from any serious car sickness. The topography was frequently breathtaking, with the shoulders of the road to Shimla often without any safeguards to sheer drops below. A pleasant night in Shimla (cooler than Manali) helped us understand how the British would make this their summer capital of India during colonial times. The next day`s long drive revealed scenes of rivers, hills, and orchards (including peaces and apples) that reminded me of eastern Washington State near Wenatchee (where I had spent 12 summers in my youth picking fruit). On the evening of May 14th we arrived in Manali.

Manali is located in the foothills of the Himalayas (at about 6,000 feet) not far south of the border with Kashmir and west of the border with Tibet. Three Buddhist monasteries are located in and around this tourist town, as well as various other temples like one dedicated to Manu (the source of the Laws of Manu that governed north India in ancient times). Our hotel was located within an easy walk of the Mall area where tourists flock to shop from all over the world – enjoying massive hills and nearby snow covered mountains on three sides. During our 4 day stay, we enjoyed a wide variety of food ranging from sushi to noodle soup and spinach omelets to mexican burritos! It was while talking with the owner of the AMIGOS restaurant one morning that we learned of his helicopter service for wealthy tourists and VIPs (at $1,000/day). He took a liking to us and suggested that we join the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh (in one hour) who had contracted a one-way flight with an empty helicopter to return. So it is that Mira and Naomi were given the ride of a lifetime for a mere $120/each! Kristine opted out as she did not feel up to getting ready on such short notice. I am too cheap, do not like flying, and had another fun thing to do. The girls had a great time – as can be guessed from their photographs!

My fun thing to do that day was to spend nearly two hours with local police authorities explaining why the visa for Kristine and I had expired on February 25th and had not yet been formally renewed! Our hotel manager had been required by law to report the issue to police as part of the heightened security concerns regarding terrorism – and he walked with me about a mile to the police station. At first the officer was unconvinced by all of the paperwork I provided (partly because he was being interrupted every few minutes by a new case/crisis that did not allow him to concentrate. It was a seriously ADD environment with reports of stolen wallets, Indian tourist complaints about their tour operators, and frequently heated exchanges of words. I just decided to remain calm and go with the flow (and maybe spend some time in custody?)! Thankfully, a long telephone conversation with Fulbright staff people in Delhi (who I had kept up to date on my visa problems) satisfied the officer in charge that the reason my visa extension had not been issued (nearly 3 months after it was applied for) was due to an ineffective bureaucracy in Kerala. I complimented him and suggested that Gandhi would have been pleased with his taking time to get to the truth of the matter.

This week has had far too many experiences to adequately discuss in the time now available. There was the lengthy discussion I had with the head of the anti-terrorism unit of the Gujarat State Police (who was on vacation) which surprised me with his largely agreeing with a Gandhian view that only justice for the poor, and not military force can defeat terrorism in the long term. There was the puppy which Mira brought from the street (and into the restaurant) to share breakfast with us one morning – and how grateful the shivering creature was to lap up the warm milk she provided. There was the searching of the markets with Kristine to find a (nearly perfect?) sweater to help her ward off the chilly temperatures…

As we pack this cold morning (in the 50`s) and prepare to return to New Delhi tomorrow (by overnight bus today), we all wonder at the diversity of this amazing country. We also wonder how we will cope with returning to India`s capital only 300 miles to the south: crowds, pollution, and highs in the 110-115 degree range! Though we may be shivering in Manali, we will almost certainly remember our visit here with fondness.

10 days are now left to us before departing from India…..

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Week 22: Delhi & Agra

Pictured here are Kris and I celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary at the Taj Mahal in Agra. The view from our Taj Plaza lodging at sunset was wonderful -- though not as spectacular as being at the historic grounds the day after (on Mother`s Day). The beauty of the place was only tarnished a little by the fact that Kris has had trouble sleeping for several nights and I have been making too many emergency runs to a toilet! Finally, finally, I may be blessed with an ailment that can peal a few pounds off my whalish belly!

Much of this week has been spent in New Delhi where we had lodging at the Asian Guest House on Kasturba Gandhi Marg at Connaught Place. The lodging itself was a good introduction to the capital of India: an aging structure with the lobby under construction (dust everywhere and elctrical wires exposed) on the second floor (above a modern art gallery) and with very friendly staff who sought to be helpful in every way they can. At about $20 per person per night, we were able to secure two air-conditioned rooms, each with its own western-style toilet and TV. Basically clean, though with bugs, our room had no window outside, the toilet seat was broken, and the advertised hot water was scarce.

Day temperatures these days in New Delhi sour up to 48 degrees celcius (about 115 farenheit) and left all four of us drinking lots of bottled water! Mira and Naomi the prize for best shoppers, scoring many items for themselves as well as for friends. I would give myself the prize for most miles walked, as forays to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Fulbright House, and the train station (where I was unable to refund a ticket) helped me average at least 3 miles each day. My walking was by choice, helping me see life up close and slowly while avoiding the overcharging of auto rickshaw drivers who see often treat tourists as cash cows. Many good conversations were had during my outings, including time to visit with current staff at the Gandhi Peace Foundation which had sponsored my travels throughoput India 39 years ago. Some had been employed there that long -- allowing us to discuss people we knew who are no more of this world.

Kristine gets the prize for sheer endurance. One day we hired a taxi to drive the four of us to the bmain mosque in Delhi, the Red Fort (built when moslems ruled north India), and other historic sites. She must have walked well over a mile that day, in the scorching heat, up and down stairs, and across broken pavement. Though she was sore the next day, she and I still managed to spend two hours in the National Museum, viewing displays of paintings, sculpture, and artifacts dating back over 6,000 years! Incredible India is the slogan on many posters which advertise for tourists, but it is all true: India is incredible!

To enjoy the beauty, however, is also to endure some pain (oneself, as well as the obvious problems visible most everywhere). Images of estreme poverty, organized begging, and children selling pencils come to mind -- as well as the smells of garbage mixed with sewage. It is rare for a public toilet to be found, and even then it will be at least 10 rupees (about 20 cents). Many people in India`s capital live on less than 100 rupees today, with 1/3 of the population estimated to be malnourished. my most touching moment in the city was with Kris when our auto rickshaw was besieged by several people asking for money at a stop light. One old woman saw the water flask I carry with me and clearly gestured her desire for a drink. I shared it with her, pouring the precious liquid into her dirty hands as she requested. Even water, so basic to life, is becoming less available here....

As I write now, it is Mother`s Day and the Taj Mahal can be seen from where I sit near a window. The Taj, one of the wonders of the world, a tomb built by Shah Jahan out of grief for the loss of his beloved wife while she was giving birth -- is a remarkable work of art. Still, the Shah taxed his people heavily for the resources needed to build this tomb and many died for it -- including the artisans who were executed so as to insure they could never build another monument like it. The amazing marble structure is, in fact, stained in the blood of the poor -- and yet it still commands awe as a thing of beauty. How full of contradictions we are who build such structures, and how human also are we who can appreciate them.

Tonight we travel north to the cooler climates of Rishikesh and Manali. We travel back to New Delhi by car ($100 round trip) to catch an overnight bus ($54 for all 4 of us) to Rishikesh. Put together with the cost of our modest accommodations, fees assessed to tourists who visit the Taj, and a little shopping, the four of us will have spent in two days what the old woman needing water in Delhi will likely have in an entire year…. If, from one viewpoint, we have a right to enjoy such times as these, from most any other perspective we also have a duties to help improve the lives of others….

Tune in next week to hear of some of the adventures which, no doubt, will be in store for us there! Know that we are thinking of our friends and family every day, with love.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Week 21: Coming Together

Coming together is an apt theme for this week. After 39 years of separation, here I am with Laxmi Satyavrata -- pictured with Kristine (together with daughter MIra and friend Naomi who have just arrived in India this week)! Finalizing travel plans for May also came together following a reunion of Stany`s family in celebration of his youngest daughter`s first communion. A very eventful week!

I first met Laxmi and her husband Satyavrata in 1971 while staying with others at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Calcutta. They were working in refugee campus along the border of India and what was then East Pakistan. Over one million people were fleeing the violence being inflicted by Pakistani troops upon Benglalis who were agitating for independence. Thousands were dying every day in the camps where food and clothing were desperately needed to stave off both hunger and cool December temperatures. For one month I joined them in their work and together we witnessed the last war between India and Pakistan which gave birth to Bangladesh. The bond forged during this time of hardship has remained all through these years, in spite of many address changes that left us unable to communicate with one another.

Kristine and I arrived in Bangalore by overnight bus from Kerala the morning of the night Mira and Naomi were to arrive by plane from Japan. After settling in our hotel, I went searching to find Laxmi and Satyavrata as I knew that 40 years ago Bangalore had been their home. With difficulty I found the Gandhi Peace Foundation offices in Bangalore and there I received word that Satyavrata had died just one years ago -- but Laxmi was alive and well (at age 79) living less than a block away! Our reunion that day was tearful, as we were sad that dear Satyavrata could be with us only in spirit -- and yet, there we were, able to catch up after so many years! She was amazed at how I had changed from a very thin young man of 21 (who, at 130 lbs was recovering from severe dysentery), to a ripe (good word) man aged 60 (who, at about 190 pounds, is -- heavier)!

Of course it was with great joy that Kris and I greeted our daughter and her friend at Bangalore airport. More than five months separation from Mira had been our longest ever from her -- and our parental instincts had us feeling a little like children at Christmas! Mira and Naomi soon were sharing some of their adventures during their two weeks in Japan -- mostly sleeping on floors with young people there who are part of a global network of those sharing the punk music scene. Though they had loved their time with these new friends, no one complained about sleeping in beds again here! Both also were as excited to visit India for the first time, as Kris and I were to have them join us. Our coming together was meaningful to me on the additional level of my seeing in their eyes the same wonderment I remember when I first traveled here.

Laxmi was thrilled to be able to share time with us all. One day she joined us in a rented car (with driver) who tried to showe us around Bangalore (he was often lost, and sp also would wed have been, without Laxmi`s direction). The Botanical Gardens were a highlight of this tour: over 1,000 acres set aside in the heart of the city, complete with a lotus pond, Japanese garden, a 300 year old cottonwood tree, and too many other scenes to mention. We lunched together and I learned much more about Laxmi`s very hard life than I had ever known before -- which helped Kris and I appreciate how much she has overcome to become how remarkable she is. Even now she teaches yoga in the mornings and provides nature cure services (including massage) on most days! Sadly, our brief visit to her city did not allow time for us to benefit from her skills. Maybe in the next life...

News from this week would be remiss without mention of our celebrating the first (Syrian Rite, Catholic) communion of Hanna, youngest daughter to our good friend Stany Thomas. Dressed in fine white, along with many other young boys and girls, Hanna`s event was presided over by the Archbishop of Kerela (yet another relative of Stany and his wife Shanty). The family reception at Stany`s home served over 150 people a fine buffet lunch -- with almost all of those invited being family members (coming together from as far away as France)! For Kris and I to be honorary aunt and uncle in such a family gathering only confirms how close we have come to be to these fine people. I am glad to know that Mira and Naomi will also share time with the Stany family later this month.

Hopefully the plans I have carefully laid out for May will proceed with minimal stress. Booking hotel reservations and and arranging for transportation has NOT been fun. As we proceed this day to Delhi and further north, I hope my efforts at being a travel agent do not show too much incompetence. For sure, I would never pursue a career in that field. Patience and a mellow personality are required - - and that is definately not me!

Thanks is especially due to several other people in Bangalore who made our four days here especially memorable. We are grateful to Kausalya Kugashankar, proprietor of the Terrace Gardens Guest House, for both providing us with a restful accomodation and inviting us one evening to dine with her and her family. Thanks also to the many people who shared with us during my speaking engagement at Bangalore University, and especially to Dr. D. Jeevan Kumar and his wife and daughter who insisted upon taking us out for lunch after the event. So many wonderful people, so little time. May our paths cross again some day in the U.S., where we may be blessed with visitors from these days.

Bye bye beloved Laxmi -- you will remain like a big sister to me. Goodbye Bangalore.