Monday, April 5, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part III

Sunday was a much better day. I was scheduled to meet the rest of my group around noon, so I had the morning to see Birla Mandir Hindu Temple. This time one of the hotel staff took me. It was great! You couldn`t take any pictures inside (they took your camera at the front) but here`s the outside:

At the entrance you take off your shoes and climb the steps to see the spectacular marble reliefs and statues at the top. So beautiful! There is a lot of inlaid black marble with the white and the bass reliefs are so detailed, like white and black paintings raised from the surface. There were many little shrines to minor gods and reincarnations situated throughout the temple, with the major sanctuary and statue dedicated to Venkateswara, “the supreme Lord who destroys sins.” Kind of sounds like Jesus…huh, that would be a really interesting bridge when discussing Christianity with Hindus.

Anyway, there was a huge line in front of the major statue where people paused a moment to pray and perhaps toss in gifts. There was another line to place the red paste on the forehead, called tilaka I noticed that different temples had different colored tilaka. Some people had orange, red, yellow, and white, all in the same dot, but distinctly separate. I guess that means they`re extra devote. Both men and women wear tilaka. That`s different from bindi. Bindi can be any shape, color, or size and are worn only by women for decoration. Different kinds of bindi used to denote different marital and social status, religion, and other things, but nowadays they don`t mean anything. Later in the village I met many Muslim and Christian women wearing bindi, usually in the form of fake jewels in the middle of their foreheads. Usually they`re stick on, not piercings.

Then I went to the airport and met up with the group. We didn`t actually take this picture until Monday or Tuesday, but here`s everyone, enjoying a break of coconut water in the middle of a long car ride:

From your right we have Vishal, the group leader. He was raised in U.S. but his parents are Indian and he`s worked with longitude in one of the villages before. Then comes Wei Yuet from Singapore, Annie from Wisconsin who has worked with longitude twice before, Toki who`s half Japanese/half American but you can`t tell (he was raised in California anyway and is about a “American” as they come, but in a good way), Nikki from Chicago, me, and our driver Krishna. I wish Ravi, the head of the organization we worked with, was in the picture, but I`ll have to show a separate picture of him.

After everyone was introduced, we had a four hour car ride to the Association of Relief Volunteers office, where we had dinner and a short orientation. Basically Longitude is the U.S. based NGO that helps provide resources and volunteers for various grassroots organizations in underdeveloped countries. Association of Relief Volunteers was the specific organization we were working with in India. Their mission is to empower India`s lowest caste to lobby the government for their rights and provide whatever basic needs the government can`t or refuses to give. These include basic medical needs, education programs, emergency food for children, and safe, permanent housing to replace the traditional mud and grass huts that are constantly prone to destruction during monsoon season. The government only provides about $500 per house, expecting the families to come up with the remaining $1,000. But how can they? They have barely enough to feed their families, and there`s been a drought recently, with poor harvests. The job of our group was to raise money for the houses before the trip and then help with the construction. Our goal was $15,000, but we only got around $2,000. That turned out to be OK; it was enough to build a house and finish the roof of another. But it`s never too late to donate!

So a lot of people asked me, why did you bother to go to India? Why not just send money? Other people in the group probably have different answers just as good and better expressed than mine, but personally, the only way I know how to answer this is as a Christian. Sending money is great, but it isn`t the fullest kind of love. If someone sent you a birthday card full of money every year, you would appreciate that person, but you couldn`t really love them. As a Christian, I believe God didn`t just sit up in heaven, sending us blessings when He felt like it. No, He left a perfect heaven of pure joy to come down to Earth in the dirtiest, most dangerous, most awful place in the whole world. He was born in a smelly barn and from His very birth He was hunted by kings. People were constantly trying to kill him and He never once shirked away from pain and suffering to help others. He chose the life of a servant, and in the end died the most horrible, gruesome death for those who hated and rejected Him. I figure if God can do that, I can endure just a tiny, itsy bitsy bit of inconvenience and discomfort. And honestly it was an amazing experience; whatever minor discomforts existed were made up for in the smiles of the children and the joy of the villagers, so that`s really not the point. The point is that to truly love someone, you need to work beside them, to physically reach out to them. That is the purest, most holy form of love.

Now that said, I must repeat, I am not in any way discouraging or degrading people who “just give money.” Everyone has their own talents and their own purpose, and their own gifts to share. For me, I love working with my hands and teaching kids. I feel it`s a skill and something that makes me feel fulfilled. For other people, going to rural India to do any sort of heavy labor might not be for them. Other people are much better utilized in their companies, making money to help others, being a blessing to those around them. Maybe you`re really good at listening to others and giving good advice, maybe you`re really good at making investments, maybe you have a passion for the elderly or for people who are mentally handicapped or for animals or for those who are hurting and broken or any number of things. But whoever you are, whatever you do, no matter what your passion is, you can use it to help others. That`s all I`m saying. I believe passionately that for those who have been given much, much is expected. And that`s not just from a religious point of view. Think about how much developed countries suck from the world in terms of resources, how much we pollute, how much we exploit other countries, etc. You can try as hard as you can to have the least negative impact as possible, but unless you actually turn that around and try to do good, you will always be having a negative impact. You can`t be sure that all the products you buy were produced without slave labor, let alone by workers on fair wages, you can`t be sure that the waste and garbage you produce won`t have any bad effect on the environment, you can`t be sure of anything. And likewise, you can`t be sure that the good you do will have any lasting effect. But you can try. You can do the best you can to have the most positive effect on the world around you. And that is enough.

Forgive me for the rant. There is just only one more short note I would like to add to clarify something above. If you think slave labor is a thing of the past, think again. To this date governments and NGOs all over the world are finding people who were unlawfully and unwillingly held for forced labor. Most commonly this is done to foreigners and comes in the form of prostitution, but it can happen to anyone and can be in any number of industries. In my very home town, a welding company recruited fifty-three Indian workers, promising to train and pay them fair wages, but instead confiscated their documents, confined them to the factory building, and paid them only three dollars an hour. There was another incident in Tulsa a few years ago, though I can`t remember the exact details, where a group of Mexicans was confined either in a plant or farm and forced to work for no money and could not contact anyone on the outside. Fortunately, the church across the street noticed something strange going on and called the police, then provided services to get the victims back to their families. I could tell you a scary story about someone in my own family, but it`s not my story to tell. In Japan, Pilipino and Thai girls are promised respectable jobs by seemingly reputable organizations, then sold to brothels. If you want more information about modern slavery, you can go to

OK, end of rant. I just think it`s important for people to know what`s going on in the world and not be naïve about these things.

After orientation and dinner, we went to our guest house in Eluru, a medium city about the size of Tulsa. The first night I shared a room with Nikki and Annie, and it was very comfortable. I`m waiting for some videos from Annie, so next time I`ll write about our first day in the village, and how the villagers welcomed us!

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