Sunday, April 25, 2010

More India Videos and Beautiful Sacura!

Ah, I just found some more videos I took in India that I just HAVE to add. Here`s a snake charmer:

Here`s some good musicians and a dancer at a little side show:

And now, on to the sacura! Perhaps you`ve heard of the famous Japanese cherry blossoms? They are a symbol of life to the Japanese, beautiful, but short. They only bloom for a few days. One of the best places to see them is ancient Himeji castle, a world heritage site. As with most Japanese castles, it was built almost entirely of wood. Completed in 1346, it is the only castle in all of Japan that has never burned down. Only, it`s closing for the next two years on account of renovations! This was my last chance to see it. So on April 10th I went with my friend Li to have a look. What a spectacular place! Here`s some pictures of sacura:

Here`s me at the very top of the castle; you can see how the inside really is made entirely of wood:

Here`s by far the best picture (I can`t take credit for any of the ones I`m in, of course; Li took them):

Here`s a video of “sacura rain.”

After that, we went to the Himeji zoo. Not much there, but it was fun to watch the penguins play. Then we went to the famous Himeji castle gardens. Gorgeous! Here`s some pictures of that:

The next day after church, I went sacura viewing with Pastor Toshi and his family around Shorenji Lake. Here`s some of the sacura around there:

Here`s me, Pastor Toshi`s father, Pastor Kumi, and Aitan on "Sacura Street."

And last of all, here`s Pastor Toshi, me, and his daughter Aiatan:

And now you`ve seen the best of Japan`s glorious spring! And in less than a week, I get to see spring in my home, Oklahoma! I`ll be visiting during “Golden Week,” the week of Japanese holidays, then heading back to Japan for another sixteen months. I`m so excited!

Prayer requests for this week: Safe journey home! It`s not going to be a fun journey; two transfers, one through Tokyo Narita, and over sixteen hours on the plane. But it will be more than worth it! While there, I`m going to attend a writers conference in Oklahoma City and already have some appointments scheduled with agents and publishers. Please pray that good things come of them! I have three books I`m trying to publish right now, Dargon the Human Slayer, a humorous middle grade fantasy, Treasure Traitor, a serious young adult fantasy, and “Twas the Year of the Census,” a children`s rhyming picture book about the first Christmas. Actually, my dad wrote the last one and I just edited it, but it`s a really good story and I believe in it, so I might as well try. Tomorrow I will know if Treasure Traitor made it to the next round of the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Other than that, I`m also trying to publish “Tapestry of Time,” an adult sci-fi short story. So far nothing but rejection letters…but some of them were nice…

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention my Thursday night English and Evangelism class! With a new school year starting (it begins in April for Japan), it`s my prayer that many new students will start attending! Also, Pastor Toshi is starting another round of advertising, so hopefully that goes over well!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
Laura (L. J. Popp)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part IX (final!)

Monday my driver and I started out bright and early, 5:30am to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal! The journey took about five and a half hours. Have I mentioned that India traffic is absolutely insane? There are no traffic signals, no lanes, and no rules. Everyone just weaves in and out of traffic, even into oncoming lanes, blaring their horn. And no seat belts! But by this time, I was used to it. I slept just fine in the front seat beside the driver. Fortunately he didn`t have to slam on the breaks very often.

A new guide met us at the road leading to the Taj. He was really good and told more stories. Everyone knows, of course, that the Taj Mahal is a symbol of love built in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. (OK, so I stole that straight off of Wikipedia, but at least I site my sources.)

It`s not a palace like some people think, but a mausoleum, housing the queens remains along with the king. She was his favorite (among the three that he just HAD to have, because, of course that was the minimum requirement for a king in that day) because she followed him everywhere, from the grandest palaces to the bloodiest battlefields, in sickness and health, poverty and wealth and all that jazz. They say that after she passed the entire court mourned for a whole year. She died in childbirth to their fourteenth child at the age of thirty-nine, and on her deathbed she made the Sultan promise her three things.

1.) He would take care of her children.
2.) He would never remarry.
3.) He would build her a mausoleum so great none could ever rival it in all the history of the world.

He kept all three promises.

The mausoleum is built in the middle of nowhere and nothing has ever been allowed to be built around it, just so it stands out that much more. It`s designed after the Quoranic vision of heaven, with eight rivers and lovely gardens and huge, carved slabs of black marble citing the queen`s favorite Quoranic verses are inlaid within the pure white marble of the overall structure.

Come on, Laura, pictures speak louder than words! Ok, Ok, here you go:

Here`s the whole set up:

And here`s an interesting optical illusion:

It looks small, huh? Guess again! I was standing over a half mile away from it. Here`s a close look:

And a closer one. See those tiney, tiny little people? Not the two just under the shadow, the ones just under the windows. They look smaller than ants. That`s how big it is:

And closest:

How was this massive monument constructed? By 20,000 workers over the course of twenty-two years. There are lots of conflicting stories. Some people will tell you the Sultan had the workmen`s hands cut off or the eyes gouged out later so they could never build another like it and they found out about it so they created a flaw and all that. But there were over 20,000 skilled workmen on this project, not exactly low class, so you`d think there would be some official mention of that somewhere if it happened. No, according to the guide, this particular Sultan was a very good man, and one reason for carrying out with his wife`s request was actually a very practical one. The region was experiencing a severe drought and hence an economic depression, so a lot of people were out of work, especially artisans. And of course the 20,000 workers had to be fed and clothed by other workers so it produced a huge boost in the economy, sort of like the public works projects of the Depression. The king of Agra actually gave the Sultan the marble for free because he was very far-seeing and saw what this monument would bring in a lot of money from tourism, or in those days, religious pilgrimages.

Another legend claims one of his other wives demanded to have a Taj Mahal built for her too, and the king finally relented, but he wanted it done in black marble. His wife found out and prayed that it would never be completed. Sure enough, the next day the king was captured by his own son. There he spent his last days in the upper tower of his palace, overlooking the Taj Mahal, and was eventually buried there beside his beloved queen. But another legend claims he intended to have the black Taj Mahal built for himself, directly across from the white, but his son locked him up so he could never put such a burden on the people, in a time when black marble was very rare and precious. Either way you look at it, his son was a usurper, and the generations to come squandered the prosperity that their forefather had worked so hard to earn, and their kingdom fell into ruin.

By the way, a third legend goes that his last and final wife said she didn`t need anything but his love, but he wasn`t willing to give her that, so he built her the red sandstone mosque beside the Taj Mahal.

The Taj itself is really something to see, the outside so pure and simple, perfectly symmetrical, but also grand and beautiful, with just a touch of color in the white. I can definitely see why it’s one of the “eight ancient wonders of the world.” I`ve seen two of them now, the Taj and the Great Wall of China. And it`s not just the beautiful outside that took my breath away. The inner, detailed designs are really something to see, especially the sculpted marble and inlaid jewels. There`s quite a bit of cornelian used in the Taj, so at sunrise and sunset, the Taj appears to glow yellow or orange. I didn`t get to see that, but what I did see was absolutely amazing. You couldn`t take picture inside, but here`s a picture I took of a workshop nearby, where “descendents of the workmen” still practice the old art of jewel inlay.

That`s not painted! They show me how they did it. First they have to draw the design they want on paper, then cut the stones, then carve the marble, then put in some sticky stuff, then lay the jewels in the marble, then polish it. With five people working, it takes a whole day to create one of those panels the guy is holding. Here`s some of the craftsmen at work:

After that, I had a really nice lunch lamb kabob lunch at a local restaurant. Here`s what that looked like, all unexpectedly fancy on the plate (sometimes I feel soooo spoiled).

There were a surprising amount of Japanese around the Taj area, especially in that restaurant. I chatted with a few of them, small families and mother-daughter pairs mostly. Their guides were Indian but spoke Japanese. It`s good to see them getting out; there`s a stereotype that Japanese never travel outside of Japan and when they do, they only visit Japanese spots, like little Tokyo in New York and California or in the very least, they`ll go only with a Japanese guide and only eat at the local sushi bar. Ha, now that I think about it, Agra did have quite a few sushi bars, more than it had “Western” restaurants like McDonalds, now that I think about it. So I guess it`s still there if they want it.

After that we were planning to see Agra fort, but the driver said we didn`t have time if I wanted to catch my flight. At least we got to see it at a distance, and he told me tales of the various ancient security systems, such as wild animals, bobby traps and what not. Might utilize that in one of my books!

I wish I could have seen it for myself, but my driver turned out being absolutely right. It took us six hours to get to Deli through that crazy traffic! We enjoyed chatting about all kinds of things from Indian politics to his own crazy antics as a child. Once when he got in trouble for skipping school to see movies far too many times, the principle asked to see his father, so he paid a man to play the role! He ended up getting caught but nothing bad really happened to him.

What`s interesting, actually India did have a really great recycle system in place with color-coded barrels, but in 2009, some Islamic Pakistani terrorists in New Deli put bombs in the cans and fourteen blue up, killing many people. How stupid! The government had no choice but to remove the bins. Talk about ruining a good thing for everyone; how the heck are you helping your cause by pulling a stunt like that? Secondly, they don`t know who they`re killing, maybe some of their own people! Taking hostages or targeting specific buildings I can understand from a logistics standpoint, that`s leverage, but blowing up random people? Where are they even getting this idea? It`s not in the Quran. Anyone who would do that must be criminally insane.

Now I understand why everywhere we went, be it a shopping mall or public space, we were patted down and wanded by the police. (It`s very convenient that over 10% of India`s military is female. The military spends a lot of their time and resources on check points like that, and there`s always a female officer to pat down the women.) And on my visa application, I had to say whether I`d ever been to Pakistan, or if any of my family was from Pakistan. I know the history and politics behind that conflict, but I still don`t get it. What are they actually trying to accomplish?

When we arrived at the airport and I got through everything, I ended up still having two hours to spare, but I didn`t begrudge my driver that. If there were an accident it would have taken a lot longer, and it would have been awful if I missed my flight! No refunds. I would definitely recommend that tour company. India Holiday Mantra. Very professional, very cheap, very flexible.

And that, my friends, was my most amazing, spectacular, awesome trip to India!

Prayer Requests for this Week: Definitely, definitely pray for the Dalits in India and the discrimination they still suffer. Pray for development in India`s rural villages and that the government will take responsibility for helping the large portion of their citizens that don`t even have their basic needs met. Pray for the work of ARV, longitude, and other NGOs working in India. On a more personal note, please continue to pray for my Thursday night English and Evangelism class that is so low on numbers right now. For the last few weeks we`ve had only three students show up. Pastor Toshi is going to do some more advertising soon and hopefully that will increase interest. But, praise God, now all three of those members have accepted Jesus and want to get baptized! Now we just need to expand outwards…

More good news: My brother Tony got a job at an architecture firm in our home town! My other friends who were looking for jobs also found them. Prayer works!

I personally need prayers for guidance. Not just in terms of what to do for work when I return to the States, but aspects of my writing career, evangelism efforts, relationships, a lot of stuff. I`ve been re-evaluating a lot of the dreams I had as a child, such as publishing my books and making comic books and even having my own TV series based on my sci-fi universe. I was really disappointed to see how little I`ve come down that road in the eight years since I started. Not because I`m not writing or submitting. Because nobody`s taking. I need a new strategy other than just submitting to one book publisher or agent every week (most want exclusive submissions so I can`t do anymore than that) and getting fifty-two rejection letters by the end of the year. I know what I want, I just don`t know how to get it.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

Laura (L.J. Popp)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part VIII

Friday night we took the night train from Eluru to Hyderabad. Not smart. We were all exhausted after a week long of heavy construction work and there was no sleeping on that train. The berths were very cramped and uncomfortable and the baby across from me wailed half the way there. Poor kid, I felt sorry for him. Note to self: never bring your young child on public over-night transportation, be it a train, plane, or bus. It`s a strange new place accompanied by strange new sensations and they can`t sleep, of course they`re going to inevitably scream their heads off. The parents ended up making a cradle from him out of a bed sheet and the rocking eventually quieted him down.

Just a note for those who are curious: Indian trains are unreliable, late, slow, uncomfortable, and you can`t see much anyway. I suggest taking a plane when possible.

We arrived in Hyderabad about 5:00 in the morning. I was so groggy and disoriented in that huge, busy station I had no idea what was going on. A man just picked up my bag and took off. I nearly freaked out but Vishal assured me he was just a station employee, doing his job. Then we drove to our hotel and got there about 6:30am. I slept until about 9:30, then went down for breakfast. I wanted to go back to the zoo, but everyone said it would be dangerous to travel by myself, so I just went shopping with everyone else. I bought a really nice but inexpensive pearl necklace (yes, it was real, they showed me the fire test) for my supervisor and some earrings for my mom, but can you believe it? I lost them! I had them on the bus in Japan to take the school and left them there, and when I went back at the end of the day the station employees didn`t know anything about them. I`ve called back several times but no luck. I am soooo dumb. Oh, well, at least I helped the Indian economy…and someone else probably found themselves some really nice jewelry.

Saturday night I caught my flight to Jaipur. I was originally going to Deli with everyone else, but with my tour I would then have to drive six hours to Jaipur the next day, so what`s the point in that? Indigo is a nice airline, by the way. Anyway, I arrived in Jaipur around 11:00 and my driver met me at the airport. His name was also Ravi, interestingly enough. I wasn`t really worried that I would have the same trouble with this company that I had with the one in Hyderabad, because they had been so professional over email, often answering questions in less than ten minutes, very kind and compromising. I was not disappointed. My driver spoke very fluent English and as soon as we arrived at the hotel, I got settled right in, no waits or delays. And as we were driving into the city, I got an added bonus. A famous female politician was also coming that night, so I caught some fireworks and cheering crowds through the window. What a welcome!

The next morning at 8:30am, we left for Amber Ft, an old capital in India from 1592 to the 1727. Here`s a great picture from a distance; can you guess why it`s called “amber” Ft?

Actually, the name has nothing to do with it`s yellow tinge! That was the name of the King`s clan! Notice the huge plain of dirt in front? Normally that`s filled with water. But for the last thirty years, India has been experiencing severe drought. The fort had a really ingenious water lifting system to provide water for the entire castle from that reservoir, but the drought wasn`t why the king relocated. He moved hundred of years ago, to a grander spot.

On the way there, there was a snake charmer along the side of the road, taming a cobra. Honestly, it wasn`t quite as impressive as it was in the movies. The snake didn`t actually dance, and I felt kind of sorry for it. The guy kept hitting it and it would flare it`s head skin for a second, then sort of hunch back down. I think it was drugged or defanged or just really, really tame. But I did get to touch it, and that was fun:

And here`s me trying out the guy`s nasally flute:

On the way up into the Ft, can you believe it, I got to ride an elephant! Here I am!

A warning, though, as you`re standing in line and even riding, EVERYONE will try to sell you something. I ended up buying a hat an umbrella to help with the sun, but if you don`t want something, just walk away. Don`t even ask how much it is! Ignore them! If you ask, they won`t stop following, pestering, or pushing (both verbally and physically). I should have known better; I`ve been to Africa for Pete`s sake! But if you do want to buy something, offer them half their original price and don`t settle for anything more than 2/3 their original. You are not cheating them; they are trying to cheat you. The umbrella I bought broke after two days. That`s all I needed it for, so it doesn’t matter, but just be forewarned.

Here`s some really pretty paintings on a gate to the inner fort:

And here`s a nice view from the top:

Note that all those little black things on the roof are bats. There were lots of wild baboons too. They even jumped right at me once while I was watching them! But they never actually attack tourists. They`re too shy. Also notice the lattice work. There were lots of places throughout the castle with this, so the women of the court could look down and see what was going on in various places of the palace without being seen. I suspect they were also used for espionage purposes too and places where archers could shoot out at an invading enemy, but my guide insisted this wasn`t so. No conspiracies or attempted take-overs in this palace. Really? Come on, the king had thirteen separate royal chambers for his wives; there must have been some sort of intrigue going on. The guide’s insistence of a perfect, boring royal home was slightly disappointing.

That`s the thing I wish my guides on Sunday and Monday talked more of. Stories. I like to know the tales of a place, the legends, myths, whatever. I don`t care it they make them up. Most of what my guides talked about was architecture. Sorry, that`s my older brother`s department, I really couldn`t care less that this arch is of the Moglian school and supports the main building by centering the majority of its weight…yada, yada, yada. What happened under this arch? A love affair, a struggle between the king and his crown-snatching son, was an enemy intruder shot through the heart by a poisoned arrow, did the princess look upon her one true love, did an elephant trample its corrupt royal rider as was prophesied by some ancient mystic? So when they don`t tell me stories, it leads me to imagine my own which, as you can see, may or may not be kind to the people involved.

By the way, here are some lounging baboons Don`t the look funny?:

Here`s where the king lived, in the Palace of Mirrors:

Why is it called the Palace of Mirrors? Take a close look. You can see the reflection of a guy`s hand in one of the panels:

Pretty cool, huh? I could use that in a story as some type of defense mechanism of a desert castle. Why not blind the enemy? Ambassadors have to be given special glasses in advance and slowly acclimated or approach backwards or something. Or maybe they just don`t want ambassadors? India was a closed nation only recently.

On the way out of Amber Ft, there was a little performance you could pay extra to see to get a glimpse of traditional Indian music and dance. I paid the money, and it was pretty good, but I was a little disapointed since it was supposed to be 15 minutes but it was only 10 minutes, since one of the dancers had already gone home. But I figured I`d get a chance to see a longer show that evening as was planned in the schedule. Unfortunately I was further disapointed, but more on that later.

After we left Amber Ft., we stopped along the side of the road to see the Lake Palace. Here it is:

It was originally a summer palace and the royal family got there by boat. Now it`s a luxury hotel. We didn`t go there; there wasn`t a boat running and the water smelt awful anyway.

Next we went to a museum/art store to look at some handicrafts. So beautiful! Here`s a peacock tapestry:

An embroidered rug:

A hand-carved marble chest of drawers:

I ended up buying a marble chess set for my friend Li. He used to be a chess champion as a child. It`s a really beautiful set.

If you want to buy something nice in India, I definitely recommend one of these emporiums. You don`t have to hackle, barter, they don`t push you, there isn`t a big crowd, it`s air-conditioned inside, they`re really nice, they serve you tea, if you don`t want to buy something they don`t insist, and they show you exactly what you want to see.

For lunch I had a lamb curry and nan lunch at a nice little restaurant. Lassies are great. There`re a sweet or salty yogurt drink that really help an upset stomach. That and lemon drinks.

Next we visited the observatory where all kinds of astrological and astronomic measurements were taken. The instruments were huge; there was a sundial so big it could tell time with an accuracy of two seconds. Here`s one for telling the alignment of the planets:

Turns out astronomers have most of their information about the universe hundreds of years ago from the records of observatories like these. It`s kind of amazing to think that this one was built back in 1727. But mostly they were used for astrology, not science, to figure out the future path of some noble child, who he should marry, what he should do etc. based on when they were born, what the planets looked like, silly stuff like that.

Then we went to the City Palace museum where the current Sultan lives. I wasn`t interested in paying extra to see his personal residence. I just hung around the outside, looking at the art work. He patronizes a lot of really good artists and they have workshops just outside his home. One of them drew me a little sketch for free. I also bought a pair of sandals to go with my sari.

Then it was time to go to a little theme park for dinner and a show. I was expecting to see an actual dance performance, a nice, sit-down affair that would introduce me to traditional Indian performing arts. That`s what I had asked for, anyway. But it was really, really lame. There were a bunch of stages set up, but they were just filled with tourists swinging their hips with some local girls. A good place to go if you want to dance yourself, but I was so exhausted by the end of the day I couldn`t manage it. I just wanted to see a nice relaxing show, you know? It was loud and noisy and dirty and I wouldn`t recommend it. Rajistan folk village, or something like that. A good place for kids, I guess, with camel rides and kiddy shows. It was definitely “family oriented.” When I told this to my guide, he said I should have asked to see a “performance” not a “cultural show.” I`m pretty sure I was plain about what I wanted to see, but I didn`t argue with him. At least the dinner was good. And I had a nice chat with an Italian tourist who filled me in on a little local history and culture.

Anyway, here`s two of the dancing girls, in the rare moments they were alone on stage:

The guide was surprised I didn`t like it. He said it was to give tourists “a glimpse of traditional Indian village life.” I laughed. “I spent a week in an Indian village working beside the people. That was anything but traditional Indian village life.” One thing I noticed was a huge contrast between the India the tour guides wanted to portray, and the “real India.” They were always trying to shield me from the beggars, from the poor areas, the dirt, the smell, anything like that. I asked them what they thought of the Movie Slum Dog Millionaire which I found to be a very true depiction of India, and many other Indian volunteer workers I`ve known did too. Hands down, every Indian I asked hated that movie. “Not the real India,” they said. “Only showed the bad things.” It showed a lot more than the bad things. It showed the rich side of life too, but it was from the perspective of a slum dog, and that still bugs them. You can`t have a story from the point of view of a Dalit (untouchable). What they have to say isn`t important.

The thing is, the side of India they want to portray is the movie paradise side. Glamour, glitz, beautiful jungles, pristine palaces, sexy, sultry, yet innocent, fresh. Maybe a better way of putting it is a cross between Richard Kipling`s India (author of The Jungle Book) and Bollywood. If something bad does happen, no big deal, let`s jump up and sing and dance about it! Of course, that`s what most people want, and it is nice to see. But it`s a lie, or at best, a half-truth. But then, America did the same thing during the Great Depression. All nations do it. They don`t want to really address the issues of poverty and pain to their own people, and they certainly don’t want outsiders to know about it.

So I also asked them another question. Everyone I met who spoke English, I asked them if they thought the cast system still existed in India. Guess what? Every single person with lighter skin wearing a suit or nice clothes said no. Everyone with darker skin wearing rags said yes. Guess who were the Dalits?

A little history for you. The original inhabitants of India were called the Dravidians. They were of African decent. They had a very rich culture, the oldest known written language in the world, the oldest form of musical notation, beautiful art, and thriving trade. Then along came the Arian Muslims out of Persia and they pushed the Dravidians down into the South. Now they weren`t all bad, of course, they brought science, mathematics, infrastructure, and a lot of beautiful art themselves. The cast system itself already existed, but the Arians intensified it, canonized it, made it a part of every day life and utterly, hopelessly inescapable. It was formally banned by the Indian government when they became independent of Britain after World War II, but do you think something that ancient, thousands of years old, reinforced by race and religion is going to go away in just two generations? How long did it take African Americans to gain rights after the Civil War, after less than two hundred years of enslavement? Let`s not kid ourselves here.

And that`s all I have to say for Sunday. Monday will have a more positive note, I promise. That`s when I saw the Taj Mahal!

My Spectacular Trip to India Part VII

Thursday and Friday had more great construction and interaction with the kids. I just love goats! Here`s one nursing:

Here`s Nikki being led across the “bridge” in Chuvuru village to get to the “colony” of new houses:

Thursday evening I went for a motorcycle ride on the Pastor`s bike with Vishal. My first time! It was so awesome feeling the wind in my hair and seeing the beautiful Indian countryside all around the village. Here`s a picture:

On the way back to our guest house our driver Krishna put on some music. I love Indian songs! They`re so catchy. Bollywood, folk, everything! I found myself chair dancing without even meaning to. I really loved sitting in back of the car near the trunk, looking out the rear window, swaying to the music as a whole beautiful world flew past. That`s probably my fondest memory of India.

Friday night they fed us very special coconut rice (made with coconut water) and chicken curry. What`s the difference between coconut water and coconut milk? Coconut water comes from the unripe coconut, coconut milk from the mature coconut. What`s my favorite kind of curry? I really loved the fish curry. It`s kind of rare since most of India doesn’t have access to fresh fish. The fish fry was really good too. Job kept instructing us how to eat it “little bits, little bits” so the bones don`t splinter off in our mouths.

Every evening during dinner, we could hear the chanting of the village Mosque, usually said first by the Iman, or leader, and repeated by a child. Sometimes it was loud and distracting, but mostly it was interesting to listen to. I wouldn`t call village singing particularly beautiful. It`s very nasal sounding, piercing, and not at all melodic. I don`t think any of them have a concept of how to make their voices match pitch, but that`s OK, because they don`t know the difference, and they sing from their heart. The music they listen to on the radio is very beautiful and melodic and the singers have excellent voices, but when they try to imitate it, it`s kind of funny. Here`s an example, actually one of their traditional Christian hymns (yes, I actually did find one that fit on blogger!):

Cute, but no Grammies there. Again, their talent lies in dancing.

For the closing ceremony of the work camp the church was decorated beautifully on the inside. Here`s some traditional Indian decorations:

Before it started, two of the village women braided my hair and drew henna on my hand. Here`s what that looked like:

Henna is made from plant paste, so it`s completely natural. If you let it dry and sit on your hand/arm overnight, it can last for up to a month! I left mine on for about an hour, and three weeks later you can still see the faint outline of it!

The village women also made each of the girls in the group, Nikki, Annie, and me traditional saris. Our volunteer fee paid for it, but they made them by hand, so I`m sure it must have taken them a lot of time. How kind! It took about thirty minutes to get into to one, half an hour of pulling, stretching, and tugging my body in ways I didn`t know it moved. A safety pins, lots of safety pins. Here`s the finished result:

Ug, I look hideous, but the sari is beautiful…

During the ceremony, they drapped our necks with beaded garlands and after Ravi and the other village leaders thanked us, each of our six team members gave a speech about our experiences. There were more than a few wet eyes. I don`t remember what I said exactly, except that I spoke mostly to the children, telling them they were the future of India, that it was up to them to help their country prosper and claim its place among the great nations of the world, but never to lose their laughter, their simple joy and kind heart that made them India.

So it was with tears and hugs that we left Chuvuru village. Here is the final picture our group took together, and the Eluru train station on our way back to Hyderabad. You can see the men wearing the traditional clothes the village women made them too:

From viewers` left: Vishal (team leader), Wei Yuet, Laura (me), Ravi (ARV chairman), Nikki, Toki, Annie. (Thanks for the picture, Toki!)

But this is only the beginning of their brighter future. Hopefully many more teams will come to help build and teach the children, continuing the cause of awareness, human rights, and global friendship. Who knows, perhaps you are being called to help in some way? If you`re interested in finding out more about longitude or ARV and their work, you can visit their website at

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part VI

Since we were the first volunteer group to go to Chuvuru village, Ravi, the head of Association of Relief Volunteers (ARV), decided it would be good for us to see another village where ARV has been working for a year and a half. So Wednesday we went to Gummallapadu (nicknamed GP) village. It was a long drive, and then we crossed a new bridge above a stream of beautiful purple flowers and all piled into a rickshaw that took us to the entrance of the village. That was quite an experience! Here`s a picture of us crossing the bridge:

Wow, from the moment I saw it I could tell there had been a lot of progress! Here, you can see for yourself the amount of construction and development:

I`m standing on top of the four-story community center which also serves as a medical clinic and temporary shelter for homeless and migrant workers. In front of me is the church. To the right is the school, and to the left are some houses. Nearly everyone had a house! You can`t really see much, though. Here`s perhaps a better picture of other houses. Notice that many have straw huts beside them. During the dry season, they still use the huts for storage or extra rooms.

Annie and Vishal were the most enthralled. They had worked in this village last year and were so excited to see the progress. But a lot of the old problems were still present. About thirty years ago there was a massive cyclone, so to help with relief efforts the Indian government allotted unused land for Dalits (untouchables) to farm and do aquaculture. But the people had no money to invest in land development, fertilizer, seed, anything, so they ended up leasing the land to rich landlords, who made them sign contracts the people couldn`t read. The people ended up giving up all their land to these wealthy landlords and were forced to work it, giving the landlords nearly all their profits. Basically it was a reinstatement of the feudal system. Then these wealthy landlords decided to farm the most profitable kind of fish, which happened to be salt water. So they built earthen walls within the lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, and filled the lake with salt and pesticides. Here`s a picture of what that looks like:

The water became contaminated and undrinkable and many of the native species of fish and bird became endangered. So instead of insisting the land lords use better techniques and give the villagers fair wages, the government simply took the land back and designated it as a bird sanctuary. So what can the people do? Now they have to migrate for work, sometimes hundreds of miles. Sometimes more than two dozen people are stuffed into the back of a truck, and they often fall out and die, so there is a surprising amount of widows. Many of these women have left to become domestic servants in Kuwait, and often complain about mistreatment, enslavement, and sexual abuse. Children who`s parents have died or left to find work are unattended and unschooled.

So along came ARV. They are trying to negotiate with the government to allow the people to practice traditional farming and agriculture within the bird sanctuary. Then everyone will be happy, except the wealthy land lords, maybe. Traditional farming and agriculture has never hurt the native fish and birds; it went on for thousands of years without disturbing anything. The bird sanctuary might also provide the added industry of tourism for the locals. So far ARV has made a little progress, but the government hasn`t fully agreed yet. Things take time in India, just like they do in any beurocratic system. Unfortunately, many people have to suffer and even die during that time. Annie and Vishal noted that many of the families they knew before had migrated or were gone for days at a time, leaving their children behind. There were a LOT more kids than adults in that village, and a few with shaved heads. It was scary and sad to see.

But, having said that, yes, there`s been a lot of progress. Here`s one story that really touched me. A fifty-five-year-old widow was hit by a truck was dying. She didn`t have a house, so she slept in the middle of the village on a bed. When it rained and stormed, she got sick. The villagers said she didn`t deserve a house. So ARV stepped in, provided her with medical care, and built her a house. Here`s me sitting beside her:

See how healthy and happy she looks? And the children all love her. They often come over to her house and she tells them stories. She taught me the word Wandanamuru. Thank you.

We spent most of the day being led around the village by the kids. We showed them pictures of our families and homes and they showed us theirs. In one house, a gecko fell from the ceiling and almost landed on my head! That was pretty funny. There were geckos everywhere; we even caught one by the tail to see if it would come off and sure enough! Didn`t pinch it or anything, just came right off and kept wiggling!

These kids too loved songs, dancing, and photos. Here`s them posing with a whole family. Notice it`s only children and old women. I think in total I only saw two young men in the entire village:

Here`s one guy feeding the chickens, wearing the traditional men`s work-skirt thing:

In this village, everyone was Christian. A lot of Dalits convert because they are attracted to the message of love and equality denied to them in Hinduism and Islam. Many of the villagers had Christian names like Maria and Job. I asked the kids if they knew any “Jesus songs” and they burst into several. Interestingly enough, no one knew Amazing Grace, but they knew a few modern praise songs and had their own traditional folk songs and hymns. I really wanted to post a video, but I`ve been trying for the last three hours and they all seem to be too long for blogger. It
won`t take anything over one minute. Oh, well. They were singing "Jesus I love you" and were so cute!

I also had a lot of fun playing “let`s travel” with the kids. They all piled into the rickshaw and we pretended to go to different cities. First we started in country; Madras, Hyderabad, Deli, Calcutta. Then we went to New York and Singapore and London and Paris. Anytime we stopped somewhere I would point out the sites, “Look, there`s the Statue of Liberty, look, there`s Big Ben clock!”

Then the kids asked me, “Your village?” My village. I told them Tulsa, the city where I went to church all my life and attended university, but later on it really made me think. Where is my village? Is it Temple, Texas where I was born? Owasso, Oklahoma where I was raised? Tulsa? Nabari, Japan where I live now? Lilongwe in Malawi, Africa where I spent a summer and left a huge part of my heart with the AIDS orphans there? Or Chuvuru where I spent most of my time in India building houses and teaching the kids?

The world is my village. Perhaps that sounds cheesy, but I really think so. Wherever there are welcoming hearts and warm smiles, that place will be my home, my village for as long as I am there. And the villagers of India really are so welcoming, so loving that you feel like one of them from the very beginning. There is no insider/outsider. Only friend and family.