A Passion for Peace

Responsibility, respect and a loving connection with all beings and for this Earth we share.

The importance of internet

Three days without internet or friendly faces and a night vomiting into the toilet has cracked me. I tried to call my mom long distance at a roadside stall, and got no answer. Just as well. I did this to myself. I always thought I was a cautious person, wading into water instead of jumping, braking downhill on my bike, buying insurance…and then I up and move to India. I have never felt so alone in a city of so many (15 million). I’ve decided daily internet access is important for my mental health and am looking into that this weekend.
Do people in the US realize how easy life is? I mean, really, really easy? I find myself skipping the occasional meal because I didn’t find somewhere to buy food, and I’m growing weary of eating at restaurants alone. It's like in old movies where people use letters of introduction, and I'm tapping everyone I can do try and meet people, including attending some expensive Halloween parties this weekend. On another note, my favorite Indian food so far is palaak paneer dosa, which is a spinach-and-cheese rice-flour crepe served with daal and coconut chutney for dipping. Part of eating is enjoying the texture of food, so you eat with your hands and a spoon. Here’s a picture.

My favorite fruit discovery is the sitafel, or custard apple, which looks a bit like an artichoke on the outside:

Since I haven’t had internet, here’s a brief catch-up on the week. On Tuesday I felt like I won the job lottery. I got a position working for Childline India, which is like the National Center for Missing Children, writing a draft of what we hope will be India’s first child abuse law. To celebrate I spent a sweaty day wandering the city and visiting the famous Hindu temple (Mahalaxhmi) and mosque (Haji Ali). The Elvis-loving broker ran into me at night, and dropped me at the fancy Vie Lounge in Juhu, the movie stat neighborhood, which had very sparse salsa dancing. He called the next day to ask if I was there to hang out with Jessica Simpson, as apparently she’d had a party there. Alas, Jessica and I run in different circles.
Wednesday I had a taste of rural India, visiting a home for girl street children north of Bombay run by an NGO called VOICE. It’s really quite idyllic, and they even grow their own food and are using solar panels to collect electricity. Still, being rural they have trouble finding staff. A husband and wife run it and live there with about 50 very sweet girls who insisted I show them the very few dance moves I know. Interesting the way culture plays into how they deal with the girls’ behavior problems from the trauma in their lives. They don’t talk about it. When the girls are upset, the goal is to put them into a meditative state to calm them down and let it all go. I find that’s a recipe for keeping it all deep within, and that’s probably also my own cultural bias. A view from the girls' home:

Thursday motor-biking with yet another broker I found and moved in as a Paid Guest in what I thought was a family home. Famlies rent out extra bedrooms to make extra money, I bought a hot plate for light cooking, and I can use the fridge and the bathroom, but I'm supposed to be in by 11:30 except on weekends if I call, because I don’t have a key. It’s about $150 a month, in a decent part of town and walkable to work. They assured me they don't go into my room, yet I woke up at 7 am to the maid going freely in and out. They also assured me no one else used my bathroom, but I had to wait 30 min for it this morning. And now they need to paint my room and want me to sleep in the living room for a week. No good. Now to look for somewhere else and see if I can get some money back. Sigh.
Plus, that rent is probably more than I’ll get paid. The non-drinking, non-smoking bar tender I chatted with at the Lounge the other night makes three times that easily. Now I get why people say ‘Oh, wow’ when I say I work for an NGO, and why this is short term til South Africa (where I’m making a couple thousand total, but at least it's something), and why my parents are awesome for helping me. A friend here says to look at it like continued education and not feel bad about parental monetary help. I can only do that for so long... At least living here is considerably cheaper than the US. Still hoping these “experiences” besides obviously rocking my inner self will be well-viewed back in the States and ultimately earn me a better position there.
I'm not gonna lie, this is hard. I keep reminding myself that I chose this. I want to do this. I am attempting to create a career that doesn't really exist... To all of you living outside your home country, I am so impressed. You are so strong. Someone told me years ago that I don’t know how to be alone. I think this proves otherwise.

Posted byValerie at 2:13 PM 5 comments  

(A Very Belated) Shabbat Shalom

Growing up with a glorified Gandhi-centric image of modern Indian history I didn't realize the extent of the violent side of the Indian struggle for independence. With an opening motto of two ways to live: accept and endure, or take responsibility and change, the Oscar-nominated Rang de Basanti transports a group of Dehli college students back in time into five freedom fighters of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association through a parallel story of modern politicians buying faulty parts for air force planes from the Soviets and then blaming the resulting pilot deaths on the own pilots' carelessness (this part is true), and ending with a dramatically violent and idealistic showing of their own (movie fiction, don't want to spoil it for you). As with any Bollywood movie, its intensity is offset with some lighthearted silly scenes and songs, but the movie also tackles the Muslim-Hindi divide and the legacy of colonialism. Indian history is another reminder of how much easier it is to unite against something (an end to colonial British rule), and not for something (creating a unified country, e.g. the current Kashmir conflict). And 'Oh my gosh!' in this movie was subtitled to our delight as 'Grandpa's hairy testicles!'

Favorite signs of the weekend: 'Persons who dirty public places are social criminals' and from a Jain restaurant:

I find Indians in general to be very kind. Since there are no maps, people always stop and ask each other for directions; it's considered rude to say they don't know, so people try to help even to the extent of sending you walking in the completely wrong direction. I'm slowly learning to recognize the subtle pause of unknowing before giving made-up as opposed to useful directions. People I have only emailed (alumni, friends of friends or even blindly) meet and spend substantial time with me, send suggestions of other contacts, and genuinely offer to help me any way they can. They're also very positive and don't want to say 'no,' so I sometimes get a run around of 'please call tomorrow to arrange a meeting,' and tomorrow the response is, 'oh yes, please call tomorrow,' until I eventually arrange something and they tell me they really want to work with me and have no money.

I began applying for jobs and post-graduation internships October of 2008. 65% of my graduating class is still unemployed. Friday, after yet another day of slogging through networking/interviews/meetings, I had a delicious dinner where we talked of being like Noah and building your own arc, being brave and taking care of yourself. I thought of a woman I met earlier this week who said worry is the most useless activity, and whenever she really wants something, she works and works for it and then releases it, saying, “Universe, if I deserve this, please provide it.” As I walked home I thought, 'Universe, if I deserve to pursue the career I have in mind, please provide a job.' When I got home I checked my email to find an official job offer to start an educational NGO in South Africa for six months beginning in January.

I can’t explain what a weight off and career confidence (and personal confidence!) boost that is. I've been ruminating lately on the idea of 'it's my job, not who I am' versus living one's work. It is not selfish to have a career to support yourself and live nicely. And it is easier to be brave and unselfish in my chosen career knowing I am from the US and have my family to fall back on, which children in the slums here can hardly say. As a new friend said yesterday, "Being poor in the States is not having a nice car." I admire the lucky ones who truly love and enjoy their work, and I really admire those who work to live despite a lack of passion in their profession. I happen to love child advocacy and conflict resolution, and I'm realizing more and more what a rewarding struggle of a career it is going to be.

As for working in India, I am giving myself one more week to find something, and then I will likely live at a home for street children just outside the city, knowing I have a position soon in January. Like the rest of the world, social-type work here is sorely needed and unfunded. Indians have no social services besides NGO's, many of which are fake and keep profits for themselves; people have no pensions from work unless they work for international companies with uniform packages, politicians are universally regarded as criminals (even charities are expected to pay bribes to get things done), and I was told an argument in favor of child labor that one daughter working as a maid in a nice home in the city can support her entire rural family. Girls on the street (orphans) are mostly raped by age 12, and family abuse and incest impacts millions of slum dwellers, but goes unreported because families can't afford to lose their breadwinners or shame the family name. In the news here a man in Mumbai locked up and starved his wife and three daughters for the past 7 years, and when an NGO helped one of the daughters escape, the man successfully filed a report for kidnapping to get her back and now the NGO is being sued. Although in good news, the women are now away from him.

Welcome to the second-most populated country of the world, an independent democracy for only 62 years. Indians are such an amazing and enterprising people, trying to rapidly advance on their own terms with colonialism still hovering over them.

Posted byValerie at 11:29 AM 3 comments  

Pulling a Life Together

Now I'm alone, the holidays are over, and the job and flat-hunt are on! India is very whom-you-know. I'm slowly networking through layers of people and starting to interview for jobs. The goal is to have a flat by next week and a job or two (ie a non/low-paying NGO job and another paying job freelancing for a law firm or subtitling for a Publishing House) within the next two weeks. I'm ready to be independent.

Speaking of work, India is full of extraneous jobs. For instance, on the Sea Link roadway, when your car pulls up to pay the toll you hand the money to someone standing by the booth. He hands it to a man in the booth, who puts it in the cash register. Then the first man pushes the button to let you pass.

I love the English here. It's a unique mixture of old British with Indian cultural input, with signs on the road like 'Hospital ceilings are boring. Drive safely,' 'Honking won't make a red light turn green any faster,' or the ad on the left for Thums Up soda. Bombay also has its own slang, such as making what Americans know as the 'kissy sound' to call someone to come over to you. My first two Hindi words were ahimsa (nonviolence) and bagh (garden), and of course I've picked up more useful ones like Kitna wa? (how much?) as well.

Today I embarked on a flat-hunting adventure, which involved riding behind a broker on his moped. He first showed me a PG (paying guest) place where you rent a bedroom in someone's house who assures you that you can use the rest of the house too, and when you ask if you can cook they say you can heat up food once in a while, and you realize if you lived there you'd be an unwanted plus one confined to your room. I insisted I wanted an independent or a roommate set up, and was shown a couple 400 square-foot-ish studios in a "hip" suburb called Bandra. In one particularly sketchy flat near the Catholic hospital (which went for about $380/month or R18,000) seven men were opening closets, turning on taps and assuring me the broken window would be fixed ASAP. Talk about extraneous jobs. Luckily I bonded with my broker. Over Elvis. He is keen to help me find a place so I can show him pictures of an old trip to Graceland.

Tuesday I did a tour of Dharavi, the largest Bombay slum. Dharavi is in between two nice suburbs, Mahim and Bangra. I use the term suburb because it's used here, but the neighborhoods are urban, except without high rise towers. This slum of officially 1 million, and actually more like 2.5 million, was considerably cleaner, calmer and had more of community feel than Rio (or Compton). When I say cleaner, of course it's relative--children still play barefoot by the trash heap, there's open sewage in in the streets that flows straight into the Arabian Sea, and most of the local businesses center around very polluted industries. Every waste product of Bombay (and even as far as from Chennai) ends up in Dharavi, where local resident manufacturing ventures recycle and produce any and everything to resell to manufacturers. For $3/day or R150/day for a man or half that for a woman, workers sort plastics by color and ultimately churn out small recycled colored pellets; there are sewing sweat shops where children as young as 14 are paid by the piece. The unfortunates work in industries like aluminum recycling where in a basement incinerator facility they pollute their lungs with toxic gas of melted metal, as if the smog in Bombay isn't bad enough. Still by removing shoes before going into a house, which for a family of five is the size of the studios I was looking at (and without bathrooms or kitchens) and careful upkeep, the homes are clean and diseases are minimized. Hygeine is pretty good, and walking on the street you couldn't easily tell people apart, except for the number of scars on their faces or obvious maladies like smashed-in skulls healed into misshapen-looking heads, or missing limbs or something. Unfortunately, few hospitals in Bombay give discounts, and none give free medicine. Below, a ferris wheel in the slum:

You may have heard that the government is slowly reclaiming the slum land and turning it into high rises; the first couple floors are reserved for the resulting displaced slum residents who arrived in Bombay before 1995, and the rest are sold. Those who arrived after 1995 are SOL and likely to be forced to live in an illegal slum. Dharavi gets water for 2 hours in the morning 287 days/year (or fewer, depending on the monsoons) and has electrical meters hooked up to a network of low-hanging wires used for drying laundry, whereas illegal slums get no utilities.

In comparison, drug money will get you nice things, but also requires guns to protect them. Homes in the slums of Rio look like small American apartments inside, with leather sofas and cable tv, but schools are often entirely teacher-less, with children going just for a free meal at lunch. The only guns I've seen in India have been on armymen. Thankfully, education is highly valued in India, and most slum children finish high school and often do 1 or 2 years of school after. Yet even in a drugstore in Dharavi you find Gilette razors, Cadbury's chocolates and Colgate toothpaste.

Seeing the recycling and sweat shops really brings The Jungle to life. I will always picture this underbelly when I shop here, and abroad whenever I see a Made in China/India/etc sticker. Yet many of the businesses in the slums are built and run by slum residents themselves, which makes me wonder if our rampant consumerism is encouraging some enterprising behavior in addition to horrible labor conditions...

In the glaring bipolarity of Bombay (like most developing countries), Saturday night I paid a $20 cover to get into a dance club called Bling in the basement of a 5-star hotel, after hanging out in a posh lounge by the Sea with women who actually wore dresses and showed the first bit of leg (and shoulder) I've seen in India. In Malabar Hill, the richest part of town only accessible by car where financeers live, is a beautiful park called Hanging Gardens with amazing hillside views of the city, such as this.

I met an interesting German-Israeli couple wandering around the area I'm currently staying, the southern tip of the city called Colaba. Their impression of the US was that Americans all try to live up to an impossible Hollywood-Barbie ideal and life is "too stressy." Also, the universal opinion in Bombay seems to be that NYC is the best city ever, and LA is awful. So much for west coast solidarity. This is a good map to give an idea of the city's layout of neighborhoods. India also does not believe in maps, and most streets are known by their old British names, not the new Indian names on the signs. Navigating is all by neighborhood and landmarks.

I'll close with the following: wandering around Hanging Gardens, I walked past a family who nudged each other, saying 'American, American,' whipped out their cell phones and took pictures of me. I should start pretending to be an American movie star to get into all the nice clubs for free. In the all-white-people-look-the-same mentality here, it would work well. Even sweaty and dressed in $3 clothes, white skin always merits a 'Yes, madam?'

Posted byValerie at 6:45 PM 5 comments  

I'm not sure the extent of the maelstrom of firecrackers, car horns, and yelling adequately comes across through this shoddy video. I think I've lost an entire register of hearing on Marine Drive tonight with booms so loud they shake your core into involuntary trembles. Happy Diwali. It's 4:30 am, time for bed...

Posted byValerie at 10:22 PM 0 comments  

The India Adventure Begins...

Today marks my first week in India, and it is Diwali, the Festival of Lights. We Jews are used to just lighting candles whereas the children here have a much more exciting time lighting fire crackers (as if the city needed more smoke in the air). My tired old camera is keen on snapping shots once the cracker's finished, but by preemptive guesswork I've had a little luck.

This picture was taken on the famous Marine Drive walk that's in practically every Bollywood movie. Mumbai does feel a little like flashy yet chill LA, and from what I hear Dehli farther east is more fast-paced and has better public transport, perhaps more like NY, but I think the comparisons end there. The beaches on the Arabian sea look nothing like the Pacific. No one swims.

Speaking of movies, my friend and I went to see Wake Up Sid, whose lead actor reminds me a bit of Sylvester Stallone. It wasn't subtitled, so I understood about half of it (and she kept helpfully translating the parts in English). It was a simple somewhat westernized love story, sealed with a hug and not a kiss, since that is still taboo in movies here. The Title of the blog is taken from the movie, in which the female lead moves to Mumbai and the first person she meets is named Sid (my first contact here was a friendly CU alum named Sid). And then she finds a flat, and a job, and writes a column for a local mag called New Girl in the City. Assuming I find a flat and a job, you can appreciate the parallels...

As for jobs, Diwali is the worst time to be looking for one because everyone's on holiday, so I'm assembling a respectable list of contacts, meeting with friend-type people I contacted before I came, and trying to be patient and persevere. It will come.

There's so much to say, and I'm slowly writing letters to everyone. Stationary stores sell school notebooks and pens, not cards or nice paper. I happened to find envelopes in a small hodge-podge shop, and my first Hindi word popped into my head buying plain paper--I remembered how to say "small" (chota), since the stationary-walla was offering me a large ream of drawing paper. Apologies to everyone who gets boring plain white paper letters. Maybe I'll come across stickers somewhere to jazz them up...

Speaking of Jazz, the girl in Wake Up Sid went to Not Just Jazz By the Bay, a live music club a block from where we're staying. Coincidentally, another friend took us there last night and we found ourselves listening to an Indian cover band with a mohawked-goateed-rat-tailed lead singer play Nickelback, Coldplay, Greenday and Pearl Jam songs.

More later, comments very welcome, and I promise not to let this be an excuse not to keep in individual touch with each and every lovely one of you readers...



Posted byValerie at 2:27 PM 0 comments