When you think of a popular sport where the participants are mostly affluent men, you generally think of golf — at least in the U.S. However, in Bhutan, the most popular participatory sport is archery. That’s not to say that some Bhutanese don’t enjoy golf, but I was told (although, I haven’t fact checked this) that there’s only one golf course in Bhutan.
One of the highlights of my day today was attending an archery match and chatting with the competitors. The way archery is played in Bhutan is quite interesting. Targets are set up 150 meters apart. Members from both teams stand on each side and when one side is shooting, the other side hides behind large green barricades with many arrow scars, until the arrow hits the target. When someone hits the target, all of the team members from that side’s team sing and dance exuberantly in front of the target to celebrate. Every time someone hits a target, they receive a colored flag (depending on the team’s colors, usually red or yellow) that is placed around the waist and hangs down like a skirt.
The game is played to different point systems in different parts of the country, but in Thimpu it is best 2 out of 3 games, up to 25 points. While the game is played, some of the many stray dogs wander across or lay in the middle of the field seemingly unaware of the deadly arrows whizzing overhead.
I suspect that it is wealthier people who play archery, since all of their bows cost around $1000 dollars. One archer told me that the cheapest bow he saw was around $700 US and that all the bows are U.S. brands, since those “are the best”.
In order to leave the field, you have to cross the archer’s path, which in hindsight, we did at a more leisurely pace than I liked. No arrows hit my head this time around, but I have heard that accidents are rampant.
Check out the video below to see the score dance and an arrow hitting the target:
Bhutan is a tiny country, about the size of Switzerland, nestled in the Himalayas beneath China (Tibet), surrounded by India on three sides.
All international flights arrive in Paro, which is located in the western part of the country. Two planes fly there once a day. I felt quite comfortable with the pilots as they maneuvered their way through the Himalayas to a small landing strip. As the pilots weaved through, it felt like the scene from Independence Day, where the plane is weaving through the Grand Canyon, just barely making the clearing. Despite all of that, I still felt safe, since the pilots have to be very well trained, which in fact makes them highly sought after.
I am extremely happy to be here. This country has a motto, “low volume, high value tourism,” so its largely unexplored. As a consequence it is not an inexpensive trip; however, it is a more enjoyable and authentic experience compared to countries with no such restrictions, where you are inevitably surrounded by opium smoking backpackers.
Bhutan was made somewhat famous recently when the 4th King pushed for “gross national happiness,” as opposed to gross national product. He was not as interested in how much money the country makes, but instead that its people are happy. In fact, though Bhutan is a poor country, people do not go hungry here because of all the natural resources, as well as their profit from hydroelectric power (which is mainly sold to India) and because of their strong sense of family values.
Travel to Bhutan can be a little complicated, but I was able to organize this trip in three weeks. Tourism is highly regulated by the government and the government sets a rate of $200 per day, $65 goes back to the state and provides the Bhutanese with free education and health care.
The cost is paid to a local tour company, which provides visas, a guide, driver, all meals, hotels and transportation. This is the only way to get to Bhutan, unless you are here on official business–then the cost is simply lowered by 65 dollars. Either way, you must wire the cash to Bhutan and the government holds the cash until you leave the country and then distributes the money to the local tour company. The transfer process seemed a bit suspect until I read about it on several travel forums and my guide book.
Whether you are in a big group or little group, the cost is pretty similar, so I prefer going privately to have more control over my trip. I love not having to rush when I want to take some photographs, or ask to go to places off of my itinerary or fill up my day when I want it fuller. In this country, going privately proved to be worthwhile.
So far, it’s been a great country that has already provided unique experiences, even though it is a long journey to get here.
As you can see, I’m ready to photograph my way through this gorgeous country!
There are so many ways to make a flight more pleasant. Over the years, I’ve uncovered things by happenstance and I was well aware that long flights with neither breaks nor little bits of comfort would make traveling unbearable.
As I try to visit more distant lands, the time to get there and the extra legs of flights add up and get to be extremely tiring. This time, the journey to Bhutan took 48 hours (albeit with a 12 hour sightseeing layover in South Korea in each direction). The following is a brief rundown of how the legs of the flight went:
Take taxi out of NYC at 11PM
Arrival at JFK at 11:30PM
Flight from JFK to Seoul at 1AM (15 hours in flight)
Arrival at Incheon Airport (South Korea) at 4:30AM
Departure from South Korea to Bangkok at 7:20PM
Departure from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan at 6:30AM
Total: 48 hours in transit, 60 hours before I would have a chance to sleep (since I needed to sight-see all day in Bhutan)
With 3 legs and lots of layover time, a traveler must have a plan and lots of creativity to have a satisfying transit.
First, it’s always helpful if you make at least one leg of your journey go through a good airport. Currently, there are a number of really great transit airports. The top three that come to mind are in Singapore, Seoul and Dubai. Personally, I’ve only experienced the latter two, but have read and heard from fellow travelers about Singapore airport being top notch (it has an Olympic sized swimming pool. I think, that alone, makes it a great airport!)
Second, it helps to take a few minutes and research the airports you’ll be going through. This doesn’t take a lot of time–it’s easily done during a lunch break with the help of google, going to the airport’s website or reading travel forums.
Third, get creative! If you need sleep, there are always places where you can grab some rest. Stick your leg through your bag straps and set your alarm for a little extra security. Stock up on snacks and water bottles on the plane (they always give away a lot of that stuff on international flights). Always look for the comfy recliners at the airports to take naps. In Incheon, you can go to the “rest and relax” lounges on the 4th floor of the airport and in Bangkok, they are on the third floor, past the Emirates lounge, a perfect place to nap if you don’t have access to an airline lounge. The above pic is from Bangkok.
Fourth, if you can, upgrade your flight to a better class. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am generally a frugal traveler, so unless I have miles or am getting sent to a country on business, I will not fly business or first class. However, on flights going to certain countries, an upgrade could cost only a few dollars and then it is worth it for many reasons. Reason #1 is the airport lounge! There is nothing like going into a lounge, being handed a towel and toiletries and taking a hot shower after a day of flying. Then, after you are nice and clean, you have access to computers and wifi, a score of magazines and newspapers and your fill of delicious foods and alcoholic beverages.
Reason #2 is the fun of sitting in 1st class, although it’s more of a secondary concern for me, because I can get comfortable anywhere. It is all about the state of mind–trust me, if I can get comfy in a 2 dollar a night hotel in Calcutta, while sleeping on a wooden bed with a thin coconut fiber “mattress,” meanwhile, the room next to me has a rat’s nest in their bed, I know it’s all about attitude!
In my case, when flying from Bangkok to Bhutan, an upgrade to first class cost me an extra 40 dollars. This is not bad for a 6 hour flight. I found it quite worth it when I was in transit for 2 days. The sky-lounge, the shower and the rest I received was worth it to me.
Since I knew I had a full day of exploring Bhutan after I landed, before I would finally get to sleep in a bed, I realized that getting creative was important in this flight time. Otherwise, this would have been 60 hours of little to no sleep or rest if I had not found little ways to make the traveling easier.
Another tip I learned from a fellow traveler and good friend, Amber, is “Tylenol PM and wine.” It’s Lent right now, so I’m excluding any glasses of wine right now; however, I’ve definitely brought along Tylenol PM. No matter if a baby is kicking the seat behind you, while crying, or if elderly people wearing headphones are shouting that they can’t hear or the lights are on in the cabin, I can sleep at least 10 hours while sitting up in economy class thanks to Tylenol PM.
As I mentioned above, researching the airport is fairly important. I always like to see if I can explore the city that my layover is in, at least for a few hours. It’s also helpful to know that information in advance when you’re filling out your customs forms on the plane and you need a departure card or just a transit through the airport. Some airports (and increasingly more, now that everyone is catching on) have transit tours. South Korea has about 10-12 tours you can choose from dependent on whether your layover is 3 hours or 12 hours long.
I also have to mention that Incheon airport in South Korea has so much to make time fly and your layover feel like you spent your time well. After my tour of the DMZ, I had a chance to breathe in the powerful smells of the botanical gardens on the 2nd floor of the airport. Afterward, I had a chance to sit in the cultural center and paint my own version of traditional Korean art.
A transit passenger can also shower for free at that airport and go to a spa (but I think you should do the spa stuff in Bangkok, instead because it’s so much more expensive in Korea–in fact, I had an hour long FANTASTIC massage in the Bangkok airport for 15 dollars).
Today, I got a chance to go to the demilitarized zone or the DMZ. The Korean airport is so ahead of the game in terms of technology and service. It has everything you can think of–shopping, movie theatres, a botanical garden and best of all, a transit tour office. This tour office arranges tours based on the length of your layover. We had planned on doing the Seoul City tour this time and then the DMZ on the way back, but as it turned out, two other people decided to go to the DMZ today which lowered our costs considerably (a 7 hour tour for $60, instead of $100).
As always, the travelers we met were quite interesting. One guy was from Houston, and just moved back after 6 years of living in Indonesia and was looking for a new home in South Korea. The other guy was an Indian, living in America, working for a French company, traveling all over the world, looking for investment opportunities.
When we arrived near the DMZ, the five of us had to switch from our minibus into a special tour bus. Ours happened to be packed with Chinese tourists. From there, we were told not to take photographs unless we were given word to do so. After getting our passports checked, we entered into the DMZ The most surprising thing to me was the amount of rice fields in this zone. I expected it to be filled with military personnel, but upon further inquiry, I discovered the DMZ was filled with a lot of natural resources and beauty. It contains birds and animals that cannot be found in other parts of South Korea because it is so untouched.
I sort of got an ominous feeling when we drove through the forest and you knew there were still thousands of undiscovered landmines everywhere.
We saw a little film and a museum and then headed off to the 3rd tunnel. After the DMZ was created, the North Koreans began digging tunnels under the DMZ to use in a sneak attack. So far, the South Koreans have discovered 4 of the tunnels. We got to visit the third tunnel.
Outside the tunnel, I ran into a U.S. Army man and a UN peacekeeper. I spoke to both of them about their jobs in South Korea. The American spoke 5 languages and had been overseas for 3.5 years–he loved having these experiences so much that he bought a house in the Philippines and was learning Tagalog. The UN peacekeeper told me how they watched and took photos of what was being brought into North Korea. For example, if perfume is being brought in, they know its not for the North Koreans, since commoners are not allowed to have beauty products, but it is probably for the people in higher positions in the government.
I thought the tunnel was one of the most interesting and bizarre parts of the trip. After we locked our cameras in lockers outside the tunnel, we had to walk down this long path to reach it because the monorail was out of order. We put our hard hats on and walked hunched over along the path, since the tunnel ceiling was low. Along the way, you can see boreholes marked where the South Koreans had drilled to discover the tunnel–this is where they tested to see if there was a tunnel by pouring water down and seeing if it would drain. Yellow paint highlighted dynamite holes to show that all the holes were going in one direction–straight toward South Korea.
One thing that was a bit funny was the coal smeared all aroudn the tunnel. this was done to pretend the North Koreans were just digging for coal, even though it was clear that coal is not found in granite rock.
When we got to the first barricade, we were 170 meters from the demarcation line. You could see thick barbed wire in front of a metal door in a meter thick barricade. Through the window, you could see the second barricade, maybe 50 meters closer to the demarcation line. Although we couldn’t see it, there is another 5 meter thick barricade at the demarcation line. The South Koreans believe that there are several other tunnels under the DMZ, but they have not discovered them yet. The South Koreans are justifiably concerned about this, since they believe that 50,000 soldiers can get through the tunnel per hour and the tunnels are all very close to Seoul.
We didn’t get to see Panmunjeom, where the armistice was signed, where now North and South Koreans stare each other down at the border. We were told that it is a violation if anyone from either side crosses the line; however, inside the buildings, which are right on top of the line, people can freely cross to maintain the buildings. Apparently, there is also a golf course on the DMZ, surrounded by landmines–they call it the “most dangerous golf course in the world.”
We ended our tour solemnly by going to Imjingak, where South Koreans post prayers and wishes for their North Korean families. There are a lot of people who were separated and haven’t been able to contact each other since the early 1950’s. Everything is blocked, no phone calls or letters are allowed, so their only solace is praying for their families.
As we drove back, we noticed fences with barbed wire and guard posts along the side of the highway that bordered the rivers that led to North Korea. It is pretty surreal to drive in a major city and see miles of barbed wire everywhere and be reminded that there is still a conflict in this democratic country. In contrast, we were told that in North Korea the guard towards face inward, trying to ensure that people do not leave the country.
Although in the U.S., we think of the Korean War as having ended, a cease fire armistice is not a technical end of the war (like a peace treaty), and in fact, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the armistice in 2009, adding more uncertainty to the current situation.
Let’s face it. There is most certainly a stigma about airplane food. I’m currently in flight to South Korea, about 12 hours in toward my destination. So far, two full meals were served – one dinner about an hour after we were up in the air, which was about 2AM and a breakfast that was served a couple of hours ago. I chose sleep over the breakfast, so I can only say that when I lazily opened my eyes and drifted back into consciousness, it looked like a very western meal (yogurt included) and smelled like bacon and eggs.
I will, however, describe what I had for my dinner because it was fun to put together and tasty to eat. I was given a choice of beef and potatoes or bibimbap. I went with the latter-after all, I am on my way to South Korea. If you’ve never tried bibimbap, I recommend it. It’s as common in the Korean cuisine as chicken fried rice is in the Chinese cuisine (at least the Chinese-American cuisine!)
The photo that I took with my iPhone shows you how the bibimbap comes. The bowl on the right is filled with a variety of vegetables, such as zuchinni, pickled root vegetables, spinach and mushrooms.
I love that I got a little set of instructions with my food!
Step 1: Put the steamed rice into the “Bibimbap” bowl.
Step 2: Add gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste).
Spice level 1 (mild): 1/2 tube
Spice level 2 (hot): full tube
– I added the whole tube, but didn’t find it very hot, but it gave it a great taste.
Step 3: Add sesame oil. – This was brilliant and really added to the flavor.
Step 4: Mix the “Bibimbap” together. – Mixing is super fun!
Step 5: Enjoy the “Bibimbap” with side dish and soup. – My soup was seaweed soup, so I am thrilled with that. I’m sure plenty of vitamins are pulsing through my body right now.
Overall, the food was really great (and, I’ve found these types of results on most international flights). No, it didn’t taste as amazing as the bibimbap I had at a friend’s birthday party in Manhattan, but it was pretty great. I’m loving Korean Air and the adorable flight attendants who are always giving me smiles adds to the great atmosphere, even back here in coach.
Oh, looks like it’s time for yet another delicious snack!
Ah, the time has come upon me to pack. I’m generally a last minute packer, although I always tell myself that I’ll do it a few days before the trip. I’ve been asked over and over what it is I pack and how I prepare myself when I go out of the country, so I’ve decided to write a post about it.
Ok–I should first tell you that I normally don’t pack a lot. It also helps that I’m going with my husband, so we can sort of split stuff up, like heavy camera equipment. At all costs, I avoid anything more than carryon bags. I have not had a bag lost/stolen yet (knock on wood) and attempt to avoid that by only taking what I can carry on. The way I look at it is that if I really need another item of clothing, I can always buy something. In most developing nations, it won’t cost me a lot of money to buy a tshirt or other toiletry product. I have to admit that I do always make sure to bring the proper amount of medication or feminine products, as those are not things I want to mess around in other countries.
Above is a picture of the two bags I will be bringing on my trip. The blue bag is a little larger than a beach bag and it’s great because it’s flexible and easy to carry. I only use a backpack, if I absolutely need more room, but for my last 3 or 4 trips, I’ve used this bigger blue bag. The blue messenger bag is a new bag for me. It’s actually a Tenba camera bag and it is phenomenal because it opens at the top, so when I need to take a quick shot, I can just slip my camera out with one hand. I usually bring a smaller bag that I hang over my shoulder that carries a lot of little items that I like to have with me–my notebook, pen, passport, water bottle, chapstick and little odds and ends. I think that this time, I’m going to leave that bag behind, since I like to keep it to a 2 bag minimum and I’d love to try out my camera bag in a different country.
Items I don’t leave home without:
Camera! I shoot with an SLR and a point and shoot.
Items that go with the camera, like memory cards, a harddrive to back things up, tripod
Notebook–I try to write and journal when I travel.
Manila Folder with items like visas, future tickets for other flights (this time, I have 3 legs of travel to get to Paro. South Korea to Thailand to Bhutan), notes on things I absolutely want to do in a country, my loose or set itinerary notes (that always depends on how much time I had to prepare for the trip, what I was in the mood for, whether I have a local guide set up, etc.)
2 Favorite Pens –just in case one leaks on the plane or gets lost
Flashlight–For this trip, I know that I’ll be without electricity in a few places, so it’s important to bring a little light.
Thank you cards–I usually bring about 3 or 4 cards, just in case I need to write a quick thank you, if I happen to do a homestay or need to tip a driver, with a little note about how wonderful it was that we didn’t fall off the mountain at those vicious curves. :O)
The country guide travel book–I like to stick with Lonely Planet or Frommer’s.
Monies –I tend to bring cash. I always have a backup credit card, but I still don’t trust ATM cards or credit cards, since I had an incident in London about 10 years ago. And, let’s face facts–there are a lot of countries that just don’t have the infrastructure for credit cards.
Headband or hat and hairbands/bobby pins–I’m bringing a hat and a headband this time around because I know about the climate, but I usually don’t bring both. The bobby pins are useful for many reasons, so definitely bring a couple on a trip.
Tweezers and Nail Clippers
Clothes (discussed below)
Other items to go over:
Clothing wise, I tend to bring 2-3 of the major items. It really depends on the climate of the country I’m going to and what I’ve checked weather conditions to be like a few days before. This time, I realize I’m off to the Himalayas, so I don’t need shorts. I’ll be bringing a pair of hiking pants and a pair of jeans. Along with that, I take some sort of sensible shoes–hiking boots or trainers and then a pair of sandals (for showers) since it will most likely be inappropriate to wear them outside. This time, I’ll take two long sleeved shirts and 2-3 short sleeved shirts, very warm pajamas (Always look ahead to see if the hostels/hotels you stay in have heat or generators or what their practice is in the evenings.) I understand that with Bhutan, it happens quite often that there are cold nights with little to no heat available. I absolutely hate being cold, so I’m definitely packing a pair of thick university type sweat pants, long underwear and a fairly thick sweatshirt. Of course, I won’t forget the wool socks or underwear! Oh, and I often try to bring a swimsuit along, just in case! It worked out for me in Alaska, when Ray and I dove into glacier water!
A Scarf–scarves are quite useful, especially for women. You can use one as a belt, to tie your hair back or when you’re a little chilly.
As far as toiletries, most of the places I stay don’t usually offer free toiletries, as they do in the western world, so I’m packing tiny bottles of shampoo & conditioner, some sunscreen, contact solution and eyedrops and moisturizer creme. This is where it helps if you go with someone to share the burden to fill that quart sized ziplock bag and be able to carryon your items!
Jacket or windbreaker–It helps to layer when you go to climates that change drastically, like mountains or deserts.
Earplugs–If you are going to a Buddhist country, these are a must. There are always stray animals running around.
Tomorrow, I leave for the Himalayas. I’ve never been to the Himalayas before, so I’m very excited about this trip to Bhutan with my hubby. Bhutan is a little country, located under China and next to Nepal, that only opened its doors three decades ago to tourists. I am really excited to hike around in the Himalayas and explore the different dzongs. One of the hikes I’m really looking forward is a hike up to Tiger’s Nest.
I’ve arranged it so that we have a 12 hour layover both directions through South Korea. The South Korean airport is so amazing–at least from what I’ve read about it. Not only does it have a movie theatre and lots of shopping, it has a tourist office which arranges trips based on your layover hours. So, we’ll be seeing the DMZ on one layover and doing a city and temple tour on another for 25 dollars!
This trip will mark my 71st and 72nd countries. That makes me a quarter of the way through according to the Travelers’ Century Club’s official list of countries, which totals 319. My goal is to get to most countries by the end of my life. We will see how that goes!
I will do my best to blog about my upcoming trip, but I’m afraid we might not always have electricity or internet. If I can’t do it while in Bhutan, I will definitely blog and post photos after I get back.
I will be writing a post tomorrow about what to pack and how I usually pack, which I hope will be helpful!
Although I work at Daya Dan on a regular basis, usually 6 days a week, my schedule is still not perfectly stable. I tend to have something happen to me every day that causes disruption in my regular schedule. I wholeheartedly accept these interruptions. This morning the disruption happened to do with one of my greatest phobias. I have actually been intensely praying to get over my repuslion to blood and needles and today, I believe my prayers were answered.
I happened to be attempting to maintain order with the mentally and physically handicapped children of Daya Dan and trying to teach them at the same time, when an Australian tapped me on my shoulder. He told me Sister was trying to get my attention. She quickly said, “come, come,” in the way Indians do here and asked me very simply if I knew how to dress. I, of course, said yes because I was thinking in terms of children and dressing them. Little did I know that in the same building as this orphanage, a dispensary is run to take in impoverished people who needed desperately to receive medical attention.
I put on a smock, a face mask, latex gloves and was immediately put to work. My first patient had a wound the size of my entire hand. I was fighting back the tears as I worked with my scalpel, tweezers, syringe, scissors, bandages and antibiotics. He was in a lot of pain as I was pulling infected skin from his leg. Another man had a leg full of maggots that needed to be picked out before even beginning to clean the wound from the green and black infection that had formed. Uneducated Indians tend to believe that rubbing dirt in a wound will heal the infection. Instead, maggots grow and thrive in the wound. One man had an entire bloody leg that I had to work on. Muscle was visible, bone was visible, but I had to stay calm and put a smile on my face, so that he stayed calm as I did painful things to him without any anesthesia. A lady pulled up her sari and showed me a hole on her behind. I saw raw bone and blood, lots of it. I heard screams and I had one sister translate that he was shouting the words “you murder me.”
In the midst of this organized chaos, I saw God, I saw Jesus. I know how silly this may sound, but this experience humbled me to a level I have never been, a place where I finally started to grasp Mother Teresa’s word. Before her, these poor people were considered untouchables.
To understand the whole concept of untouchables and the poverty that belongs to India, we must integrate the basics of Hinduism and the caste system. Hindus believe that if you live a bad ife, that you will be reincarnated into a bad life. So, for example, when they see poor, they believe that those poor are only poor because they did something evil in their past lives. To Hindus, the destitute deserve the tragedy in their lives. For example, a human rickshaw driver is believed to live such a hard life, pulling rickshaws barefoot through the hot and dirty streets of Kolkata, to repay his evils in his past life. The rickshaw driver believes that if he is good in this life, and does all the things that a Hindu is required to do, such as provide a good dowry for his daughter (so that she is not married off to someone who does not need a dowry, such as a leper), that in the next life, he will be a taxi driver.
The caste system signifies their worth and the evils they committed in their past life. What I can’t understand is the major contradiction in the Hindu religion. If it is past lives and bad karma that have caused rebirth into a tragic life, isn’t it bad karma for someone to shun the poor and untouchables? Isn’t it bad karma to not life someone out of pain? Will you then be reborn into a life of a rickshaw driver because you’ve done so or is there an exception to this rule?
I know there has been some controversy about the Missionaries of Charity (MCs) working on these people without being doctors themselves. I would like to respond albeit briefly on this topic. We have to think outside the norms and standards of our lives in the western world and place ourselves in the shoes of those who have absolutely nothing. When I mean nothing, I mean, I walk through their kitchens and living rooms daily, by walking on the sidewalks. The fact that some people have plastic over their little area of the sidewalk is a blessing to them. For them, medical attention is not something within their reach. As I’ve explained in other blogs, the communist “national health care” hospital system here does not work at all. So, for them to have the means to come to a dispensary and get antibiotics, prescriptions, wound changes, stitches, shots and love is a really big deal. It is now that NGOs have come here after Mother Teresa made this place public after she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Also, the volunteers are sometimes doctors and nurses and people like me, who want to do a very thorough and good job. We are quick learners, ask a lot of questions and get the job done well.
The Sisters provide their hearts and distribute the best health care they can. I feel I got a really good amount of training and am confident this experience will help me in the future, whether it will be to conquer my own fears or deal with possible wounds in the future.
We may culturally say, “how are you?” when we encounter a person, but here in India, most people say “What’s Happening?” It took me a while to get used to that since I associate those words with accidents or bad things going on. Just a week here and people already know me on the street. I feel like I’ve been here for months, since every day is completely filled from morning until night and people here become friendly (with an obvious agenda) very quickly. Sometimes I go with my gut and I am completely wrong. My friend said it well when she said you feel like a spinning compass in this land. I like being known on the streets, it actually makes me feel quite safe because when I’ve been harassed by others, my Indian mates have come to the rescue. I often eat at this place everyone calls China Lane, seated on a hard bench. A woman hands me a steaming metal plate with newspaper underneath it, so I don’t burn my hands. They always call me “chili” as I walk by because I always ask for more chilis on my food; the spicier, the better is my motto!
It is high season now, so the beggars have come from many different places to be on Sudder Street, where the backpackers mostly stay. I found out that a beggar man with one arm actually runs this street. I actually really enjoy all the children that run up to me and want to hold my hand or shake my hand. They always say, “hello auntie.” It is taught in schools to call women and men, “auntie and uncle”. It is like their version of mister or missus. When I handed out some pens today near Daya Dan, the children were unbelievably excited. People here are so poor that some have never owned a pen. They were so thankful to receive it.
I stick with the WHO water recommendations since the water here is absolutely filthy. Every possible disease you can think of is in the water. It is no wonder people die early and often here. The water I drink is either Aquafina or Kinley. I prefer to stick to the name brand water made by Pepsi that is available here. I noticed that the other water here claims that it is “purified using state of the art water filtration through the use of reverse osmosis.” I burst out laughing when I read this part, because from what I’ve been told, the water is just “filtered” by passing it over rocks. Ha ha.
The days are very tiring after working with these children, teaching them color concepts or taking them to meditation, feeding them, bathing them, dressing them, doing laundry, cleaning up their excrement. The sisters cannot afford diapers, except for one day a week, which is usually Sunday, when they are in their church clothes, so the probability of you getting some sort of bodily fluid or solid on you is high.
Today, I found a new respect for rehabilitation therapists. What a difficullt task it is to move a small child. I was dripping with sweat moving a tiny 4 year old child with another person. Here I thought that it wasn’t too hard to move someone’s arm or leg 10 times, but that is not the case at all. A young boy named Sebbashis who sits in a chair and refuses to eat was a boy that I worked on along side another Polish woman named Lydia. From what I understand, this rehabilitation has really moved his progress forward. He wasn’t even sitting up before, but now he is and he can even stand for 10 minutes if you hold his hips. What kind eyes this little boy has and I want nothing more than to have him walking and talking. I only wish i could stay here for a few more months to see the progress on a child. When you are a long term volunteer, you are assigned a child that you work with and you can see a lot of progress. One child, named Joy, started speaking for the first time last week and the long term volunteer assigned to his case was overjoyed with the two words he can now say, “joy” and “hello”.
I am so happy to know the sisters do this work. I really cannot believe the kindness here. If they were not here, these children would be dead. One child, a boy named Prince, was found in a pile of garbage without an anus and the excrement had eaten through his intestines and was coming out his side. If it were not for sisters finding him and taking him in, this young sweet boy would be dead. In fact, a lot of children are found here without anuses. There are two women, one from the US and the other, I believe, from Norway, who pay for operations for this common occurrance. I am quite pleased with the love and joy I see here in these sisters. It is wonderful that they have chosen such a hard life of poverty and obedience to help the poor.
In the early morning, I awaken at 4:50 am, dress into my very colorful salwar kameez, which is quite bright compared to the black I usually wear in NY, brush my teeth and my hair and take a long walk to church. The walk is through the main section of the muslim district and I pass cows, people sleeping under rickshaws, step over sleeping bodies, past muslims on their way to the mosque and stop for some boiling chai on the way. A woman named Sultana, who the long termers all know, will generally be waiting to have some tea with you. Yesterday, I was with Bernie, a long termer who has come every year for over 25 years. She works on the railways and collects people who need to be hospitalized, gives them medicine and does aid work at its most raw level. There are a number of people here like Bernie, they go back to their countries to work for a few months to gather monies and then come back here to the “city of Joy.” We stopped to have tea with Sultana and she told me about her situation. Her begging supports her entire family. Bernie explained that sultana was in a terrible accident and she only found out because some Irish friends had heard her speak about an article they had read. When they went to the tea stand to ask about her, they were told Sultana was dead. As it turned out, her husband was killed by the car that hit him, and she sustained injuries to her head and legs. No one thought she would live, much less walk again. She has the most darling face and you can see the joy that fills her soul.
My first day at the Mother House and the following experiences had me fighting back tears all day. After leaving my shoes by the door, I walked into a large room with floor mats for pews and hundreds of women who looked like Mother Teresa. I absolutely love that this order integrated with and embraced the culture here and wear a version of the sari that all Indian women wear. The bells rang and Mass began with a beautiful song sang by the sisters. We would kneel and sit and touch our heads to these mats. The sisters were all on one side of the room and volunteers on the other side. I prayed hard. I prayed for everything I’d seen and everything I felt in my heart. During the consecration, we didn’t just bow our heads and kneel, we touched our heads to the ground, an act that made me think harder about the mystical moment in the Mass. We sang songs, we prayed after the Mass and walked out of the room and down to the area where breakfast is served. Breakfast was chai tea, a piece of bread and a mini banana. I met some volunteers and followed some to the place I wanted to volunteer with, a place called Daya Dan, for physically and mentally disabled children. A running bus start (you literally have to run and jump on buses) and a rickshaw ride later, I was at Daya Dan. A naked street woman was washing herself outside and I waited for the gates to be opened. After removing my shoes, I walked into a large room filled with young kids running around. I was overwhelmed for a moment and then instinct took over and I just decided to do whatever was needed. I noticed three boys sitting alone, all three were blind and rocking back and forth, two had no eyes. One loved when I massaged him and touched his arms and head. Another felt where I was and got into my lap. One of my favorite boys was someone named Mucala, a boy who didn’t let go of my hand for hours. He grabbed on so tight and just wanted to hold on forever. Any move I made away from him, he grabbed on even tighter. Prince was a boy who loved my watch and Mongol has physical disabilities but seemed to be the only boy that was mentally able. He knows everyone and everything and studies constantly. One little Asian boy named Joy only began to speak last week for the first time although he is six. I can’t remember every boys name, but I’m sure I will continue to get to know them over the next few weeks.
By the time I walked back to the mother house in the evening to officially register with Sister Karina, I couldn’t hold back the tears. We had a private conversation and she had me wiping my face and crying within seconds.
Later, I did a favor for a friend and walked to BMS, the Baptist Mission House, with Serena to see if reservations were all set for a group of people coming. Through that, I met Anu who invited us to her house for tea. We had tea standing up her rooftop and then later stayed in her house while she changed into her formal Sari for a Christmas play/concert she was going to sneak us into at the Assembly of God Church. What a juxtaposition her home was with the home of a lady who sells samosas on the street. Her house was a little larger than my bathroom and had a wooden bed up as high as my waist to be able to sleep in the monsoons. The bed occupied the entire room except for the tiny doorway entrance that you could stand in, otherwise you would have to lay on the bed. Puja, a little girl around the age of 10, lived there with her mom, the lady selling food, her two aunts and the aunt’s three sons. All slept in the same bed. That is seven people.
Anu’s house was a mansion compared to that. It was a mansion compared to my apartment. She had two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room and a kitchen with a stove – all of this was supersized. The interesting thing is that she had recently moved into this place. She had been a homemaker for 25 years and decided it was time to work. Somehow she landed a job that required very good connections and English skills. Before that, Anu was living in one room with her entire family. In India when you marry, you marry the whole family, meaning your husband’s family and your family, including grandparents and parents all live together, unless they are married off or dead. Anu said it was a hard life, but she said it with a smile, like most Indians do. They do not complain like we do.
I don’t want to say too much about the play because it was worse than a grade school play. It was a Christmas play in a church for Indians, which is fine because it is a Christian church; however, it was obviously trying to show that a perfect Christmas was one that looked like a Hollywood American family would have. I think they tore out a gap ad and just copied that, down to the scarves, snowman and fake snow. It doesn’t even snow here, who here would shop at United Colors of Benetton, you can’t cut down a Christmas tree here, and where were the saris? Why did they not integrate into the culture and be proud to be Indian? When the preaching started, using sparkling letters from the the word Christmas, I became really restless, but we were white and siting in a VIP reserved section and had gotten in for free, so we couldn’t leave. Only two good things happened. One, a man sang a religious song in Hindi which was really neat (the only Hindi song that night) and secondly, I heard the national anthem. I think it’s one of the best anthems I’ve heard besides the American anthem.
Every day here is so full and there is so much to write about, but I can’t even get half of it down. I feel like I’ve been here for months, but it’s only been a week. I said to myself I wouldn’t give anyone my finger print in this corrupt country, but today a new law came down and all internet cafes take finger prints, photos and enter passport information. Perhaps it’s because the terrorist’s sim cards were bought only a few streets away. Oh well, I figured I couldn’t go for a month without any internet.