Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nothing But A Child

Before I get into the next bit of story-telling, I'd like to say hi to everyone reading and invite you all to leave comments, even just to say who you are and why you're reading. I have this blog hooked up to Google Analytics, which tells me how many people are looking at this page and where in the world they are. I imagine all of you tuning in from California are friends and family of my dear traveling buddy Dana Maria. Florida - is that you Simo? Colorado - my auntie and uncle? PNG - I know you, you cheeky thing. But I have no idea who the people from Virginia, the Netherlands and a few other random places might be. So, even if you've stumbled across this page because you did a google search for Van Morrison lyrics, feel free to say hi - I'm super curious about who you are and why you're here.

So, back to the adventures, eh?

After an amazing week, we were finally able to drag ourselves away from Mysore. Our original intention had been to go to Chennai (Madras) on the East coast and get boat tickets to the Andaman Islands, but Dana suddenly remembered the American guy she met at the airport in Bangalore while she was waiting to pick me up. Tim, from Washington, DC, is a member of an organization called "The Family," and while it sounds like a mafia thing, it is in fact a Christian volunteer group doing social work in India and around the world. We decided that the opportunity to see what these guys were up to was too good of a learning experience to miss, so we canceled the tickets to Chennai and replaced them with a ride back to Bangalore.

The train ride was another lesson in cross-cultural relations. We sat with a really sweet family consisting of two boys, 11 and 13, their parents, and another guy who might have been a relation or friend of the family and was basically a grumpy bastard. The boys had a great time practicing English with us and playing with my camera, and as always we were happy for the genuinely warm company. I was sitting across from Dana with my back to the door of the train car, around which many people were standing for lack of seats. I hadn't quite realized that we, and Dana especially, had become the in-train entertainment until I moved across to sit next to Dana and looked up to see a wall of Indian faces, all eyes fixed firmly on us. We do make quite a pair. Dana has one of those faces that could be from almost anywhere - Latin America, the Middle East, Nothern India - and here, wearing her Indian-style clothes, she is almost always mistaken for Indian. And then there's me - lily white skin, a lip ring, a rock haircut and beard and t-shirts in loud colors. Basically, I stick out like a ballerina at a biker bar. When people look at us together, you can see the thoughts ticking over in their heads, the intensity in their eyes as they try to figure out what this nice North Indian girl is doing with this Western freak, and then their faces go blank as the internal circuitry overloads, they accept their complete lack of understanding and just stare.

At one point when Dana was sitting with her legs daintily crossed, as any polite Western girl in a skirt would, the grumpy bastard became visibly upset and started making undecipherable hand gestures in the direction of Dana's legs. With the help of the friendly ladies sitting nearby, we eventually figured out that he was somehow offended by Dana's legs being crossed. Sometimes it's just better to accept these things and move on, so she obliged and sat less comfortably with her legs uncrossed for the rest of the trip, but we had a good laugh because she kept on forgetting and going to cross her legs again, and every time I would pretend to get very upset with her and demand that she uncross them again using aggressive gestures. How did I end up with such a badly behaved Indian wife? It's really disgraceful sometimes. We asked around for a couple of days, and after talking to many people, Indian and Western, who had no clue what might have upset the man about Dana's legs being crossed, a member of The Family told us that it's considered very rude to point one's feet at another person, and when one's legs are crossed, one foot points at whoever is sitting across from you. Well and good, cultural lesson learned, except that for a large part of the trip, the man who had complained about Dana's feet also had his legs crossed, and one of his feet was pointing directly at me the whole train ride. Good thing I didn't know at the time - he might have found my size 1o Teva shoved up his nose.

Once we were off the train and settled in Bangalore, Dana got in touch with Tim, and we took the city bus to his place for dinner with The Family. It was...interesting...to ride the local bus and see how most Indians get around. In India you pretty much have to get used to close physical contact with everyone around you. This is more of a problem for women because much of that contact is unwanted, but for everyone it's just a reality. As I am taller than most Indians, I often find myself with someone else's hair in my mouth, eyes or nose. I guess that's karmic retribution for the fact their faces usually end up in my armpits. After getting off the bus only half a stop too late, Tim came to meet us and took us to his place. We walked in the front gate and were amazed at the huge mansion that stood before us, looking like a reproduction of the sort of Greek revival style you might see in Savannah, Georgia. Tim explained that the house had been donated to The Family for a number of years by a wealthy Indian businessman currently living in the US and leaving his house vacant. As it turned out, everything inside the house was also donated, from the stylish matching furniture to the huge plasma TV. Inside, we were greeted with hugs by about 20 people, all living together in this huge house and volunteering full time on various social service projects. We soon sat down to a fantastic dinner, including a beautiful salad - the first time we had seen fresh green veggies since I arrived in India. We both had two bowls. During dinner we started to wrap our heads around the idea of The Family and the people who make it up. The organization was started by hippies in California in the 60s and incorporates a highly spiritual (read Christian), but non-religious approach to life into the idea of serving those in need. The people around the table were mostly young and some were there with spouses and young children. There were also a few teenagers there with their parents. Most of them have grown up moving from place to place around the world but speak with American accents and are generally culturally American despite widely varied backgrounds. We found it interesting and somewhat confusing that while some had been born in India and lived there their whole lives and others had been there for years, almost no one spoke any Hindi and I don't think anyone at all spoke Kanada, the local language. While they spend their lives in service to Indians in need, it seemed like these very caring and dedicated folks choose to live in a sort of bubble of Americanism and Christianity in the middle of India. Personally, if I were going to live in India and do this sort of work, I would want to be a part of the community I was serving. Maybe I'm judging way too quickly, but it seemed an odd way to live in the middle of India.

After dinner, we went upstairs to the rooftop patio for a couple of beers and some entertainment. Guitars were brought out and songs about Jesus and loving everyone were sung to us with much enthusiasm. After that, we played various games like "I have never" but without the drinking, and one where we threw water balloons and tried to catch them in a blanket. I was the first one out in "I have never" because it turned into a gender war with the boys and girls trying to get each other out by saying things like "I have never worn lipstick." I did theater in high school and have thus worn every kind of make-up, have been known to rock Iron Maiden nail-polish from time to time, and have no shame about wearing a dress if the moment's right, so I was caught squarely in the crossfire of the gender wars, but was glad for the chance to sit out for a few minutes and finish my beer. The whole thing reminded me a lot of Christian youth group from high school, but this time with grown-ups. Afterwards there were more songs and then more games, and as people started to retire, we were told "I love you" over and over again, and Dana was asked by an older gentleman if he could help her accept Jesus into her heart. We eventually said goodbye among many more hugs and "I love you"s and were given some Christian pamphlets to guide us to Jesus. Tim kindly drove us the considerable distance back to our room at the railway station where we were eager to decompress after an entirely surreal evening - both comforting and unsettling at the same time.

We had arranged to come along on one of The Family's programs, so the next day we got up early and took a rickshaw to the home of a wealthy Indian woman who was not a member of The Family, but who would be participating in the program and had agreed to give us a ride. After a quick chai on the corner, we walked down the road to a large complex of condos surrounded by a large iron fence and with security guards at the entrance. We signed in and were allowed through to meet our new friend. The inside of her apartment looked exactly like that of any upper-middle class Westerner. Apart from the traditionally-dressed Indian housekeeper and a large portrait of Sai Babba on the wall, there were no clues to the fact that we were in South Asia and not the Upper West Side (come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised to find Indian housekeepers and pictures of Sai Babba on the Upper West Side). We were seated and offered juice and made the usual small talk until our host's niece showed up, a young married woman wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers so she could "run around with the kids". The young woman and her aunt began to discuss marriage and children and what they would be doing for the day. It was fascinating to listen to these wealthy people - so removed from the lives of the billion average Indians who enable the lifestyle of these rich few, and us rich few in the West, through their constant labor. After a while we were joined by another wealthy young Indian woman and we headed off in cars with full-time private drivers to the school for underprivileged children where we would be working for the day. On the way, the second young woman, who's husband obviously makes enough that she is in no way obligated to earn money, talked a lot about doing "the Lord's work," and we found out that the niece was the wife of a jockey. Cool.

After a good long taste of Bangalore's traffic nightmare, we finally arrived at the school to find a construction crew at work out the front. It was interesting to see how these things get done in India. The crew was about even on men and women, working with nothing but small hand tools, all small but wiry from years of hard labor, their babies sitting in the dirt nearby as they worked. No one acknowledged them or said hi as we walked through their work, and when I made eye-contact they just stared blankly. I'm just guessing, really, but I think this was a good indication of the class divisions that still exist in India. These people are not to be talked to, not to be thought about - they're just there to work.

The school was a much happier scene as kids ran through the halls, all big smiles and energy. A group of girls greeted me with "Welcome, Uncle!" as I walked through the front doors, and every kid we passed gave us big smiles and cheerful greetings. The whole place was clean and bright, and the kids all looked well-fed, clean and happy. We went right to the staff room where lunch was going on, and were served a spicy thali while we got the run-down of what was going on for the day. Leading the charge was full-time member of The Family, a delightful woman called Jacinta, who explained that they had recruited a crew of beauticians and hair stylists from some of Bangalore's fancy salons to come and give the kids proper hair-cuts. It was interesting to see that nearly all of the stylists were East-Asian. Not sure why Bangalore's salons would be thus dominated - globalization's a trip, que no? We also learned a bit of the history of the school from the head-mistress. Apparently, the entire thing was privately funded, having been founded by a German woman who had visited India and decided to help out by building the school. The kids all come from underprivileged families, and would almost certainly be working if not attending this school. The students all still lived with their families, but most were fed and also bathed at the school.

After the debrief, the unskilled volunteer labor (us) was sent upstairs to help a large group of girls make bead jewelry while they waited for their turn to get a haircut. The girls all spoke English very well and welcomed us by singing a couple of songs in English. It was very Julie Andrews. Once we were organized, our host from the morning and her niece began cutting fingernails for a group of younger children while Dana and the other young woman cut strings and handed out beads to the girls. The girls were all so sweet and well-mannered and obviously happy to be doing something fun and frivolous. I'm sure there were more 'important' things we could have done with our time and resources than help kids make bead bracelets, but in a way it was really nice just to do something fun and silly with these gorgeous children who's lives are pretty hard. I, of course, didn't actually help at all because my camera was glued to my face the whole day. Thankfully, my photographic skills were in demand for more than just personal memories as the usual photo suspects that hang out with The Family were absent. I was given an armful of small cameras to shoot with on top of my own rig, and also recorded some short videos for The Family's files. Once I was done with Family photo duty, I was free to walk around and shoot what I liked. I went right downstairs to where the hair-cutting was taking place in two separate rooms, one for boys and one for girls. I was first greeted by a young boy who had just finished his cut, and when he grinned up at me with his perfect little rock-star haircut I knew the entire program was totally worth while. In the boys' room, the kids waiting their turn chatted and teased those currently under the knife, who looked embarrassed and nervous but super excited to be getting a for real style job. Invariably, when one of them got finished, the others would hoot and holler, giving slaps on the back and cat calls to their newly sexy-fied brother. As one boy got his cut, a little girl stood as close as possible, watching the every move of the stylist intently, her brow furrowed in concentration like a resident watching a master surgeon, soaking in every swipe of the comb, every snip of the scissors.

The girls' room was a more subdued scene- each girl stoically taking her treatment, trying not to betray the obvious nervousness at having her beautiful, long, dark hair sheared away. Here, unlike the boys who returned my photographer's disarming grin with sheepish smiles, the girls were too intense to respond. But every once in a while I would catch the eye of a stylist who would return my grin with a wry smile, betraying their joy and satisfaction in their work. Unlike the boys, the girls not currently in the hot seat were not content to sit around and tease. Instead they were quietly supportive of their nervous friends and were often gathered in small clusters around the stylists, watching them work or helping out by combing, pinning or holding locks of hair out of the way. Outside in the hallway, the newly styled girls huddled to quietly analyze and admire each others' new styles, and reassure those about to enter.

Heading upstairs again, I found Dana sitting on the floor with some older girls, making what would turn out to be a red, white and blue bracelet they had forcefully encouraged her to make for me. She apologized for the overly patriotic colors, and I told her not to worry because I'm proud to be Aussie ;) Standing nearby with a wondering look on her face was one of the cutest little girls in the word. These kids, I swear, I want to bring every one of them home. This girl had that look of complete bewilderment and wonder - big watery eyes, mouth slightly open - only capable by the totally innocent. We finally left after chai and group photos and as we walked out amid a chorus of loud goodbyes and waves I was grinning so hard my face hurt. Walking past the construction crew again, now huddled in the sparse shade provided by a low brick wall, their faces frozen in hard stares, I wished that there was something we could do to make them smile like the kids behind us, and hoped that those same kids never lose the joy on their faces they had that day. I think in the end that no amount of lobbying or fund raising has the power of a simple act of kindness that can brighten a dark life and make someone feel special.


gma said...

Hi Fred...Dana's grandma here...It is so good to read something from someone who has been visiting with my little Cricket. She is so missed here.
I love your writing almost as much as I love Dana's. Your photos are absolutly beautiful. Can't wait to see any you may have taken of her. I hope to meet you someday...if you are ever in the San Diego area please come to visit...Judie

Marc said...

Ach, busted! Well, I suppose that Arlington County is technically Virginia.. but I look at it as a slightly greener and more bucolic extension of DC. And in this place, 'slightly' buys you a lot of peace of mind.

Good to see you're having good times out there Fred. Yours n D's Indian adventures were a clamitous, entertaining, inspiring and rollicking good read.

(PS- your hit reader is not fooling you; now I am in NC for Xmas eve and day. Chalk one more state to the list!)

Good trails, happy hunting and remember.. don't be a stranger, just be strange.

Marc S.
aka 'Vince'

PS- btw, those curry sauces are the mad flavor! I have a whole new appreciation for Tofu.