Getting Away! I like to travel because it takes you out of the routine and away from the sometimes knotty problems of daily living; or perhaps I just give myself permission to go away mentally as well as physically. And, when you go half way around the world to India, as 11 ICUUW members did at the end of December, you know there will be daily challenges that demand focus on the here and now. Just getting to India is not an easy task, with a 22-hour flight including only a slight layover in Heathrow, we arrived in Delhi at 2:30 in the morning. After collecting bags, we didn’t get to the hotel until 4:30 AM and we knew the next day, our only day to see Delhi, would begin at 10 AM. Normal routines go right out the window!
Vast Subcontinent. In each city we had a different guide, licensed professionals in India, whom we had a chance to get to know personally over the course of our two to three day stay. They gave us an insider’s view of the country, its politics, religious beliefs, and culture, including the caste system. We heard from our first guide about his perception that China was building a golden necklace around India, through its imperialism in surrounding countries, that he feared they would use as a choker around India’s throat.
Thrills and Adventure. Another interesting aspect of travel is that I only seem able to take full measure of a place after I have returned home. Particularly a place as vast as the subcontinent was almost overwhelming while we were there. My best example of this is riding in a rickshaw which all 11 of us did late at night going down to the ghatts (steps) to the Great Mother Ganges in the Hindu Holy City of Varanasi where nightly huge crowds attend a prayer ceremony. We were going pell-mell, part of the endless river of traffic: trucks and tuk-tuks, lorries and jitneys, buses and carts, scooters and bicycles, dogs, goats, and fearless pedestrians crossing the street. But what began as heart-jolting terror, magically changed to be thrilling and exhilarating. We all wanted to do it again!
Stranger in a Strange Land. But for all its energy and constant flow, there were only a few times that I was fearful. The other time I will tell because it provides some insights into being strangers there. It was when we were thrown off the highways because of a demonstration by the Gujjars, a Muslim tribal group, one of the “Other Backward Classes” listed in the Indian constitution that receives aid from the national government. There is a cap and no more than 50% of such funds can be spent for OBC groups. The Gujjars had earlier appealed to the Supreme Court for an increase in compensation in recognition of their family members who had been killed by the police in a demonstration several years ago. The court decided against them and the Gujjars were protesting the decision by sitting on the railroad tracks completely stopping all trains between Delhi and Mumbai. They had also closed the highways in Rajasthan forcing our two vans onto small rural roads with nary a sign or direction. As a result, several times that day, we ended up on rutted roads which we could make slow progress at best. We didn’t have far to go, but many of us were suffering from Delhi Belly, and losing our way, having to turn back, no western bathrooms in site, was putting our nerves on edge.
Otherwise, it was lovely being out in the countryside for the first time and seeing the colorful peacocks everywhere and the fields of yellow rapeseed flowers (source of canola oil). As we made our way through the small villages, we were always observed with keen interest by villagers. Perhaps the five cars they had observed that day, including ours, were a complete oddity. So the villagers were on heightened alert, kids watching the streets for speeding cars. (While our drivers were wonderfully competent, there is some history—perhaps a legacy of the Raj--that allows tourists to cut in front of indigenous people. Every one of our vehicles had “Tourist” prominently emblazoned on the outside, and we were driven about as though we were an ambulance on our way to the hospital.) As we rounded the corner in one village we came to a complete stop because of a group of teenagers in the middle of the street who immediately and spontaneously began to beat upon our car. They were excited and didn’t seem intent on harming us, yet the more they beat, the more others joined in and the more excited they became. We couldn’t move and they suddenly surrounded us. Whereupon our driver, Mr. Prem, who one could tell at a glance, was quite an upstanding fellow, rolled down his window and admonished them at some length and they stopped. A little while later our guide, Bobbie , who had experienced the incident with us, responded to my speculations about the reasons. He believed they had never seen white (some say red-skinned) people before and they were very curious about us. After that, I adjusted my bonnet and sat up straight and smiled and waved at every passer by. I must say there were so many lovely smiles that day, particularly from the children, and I even had a kiss blown my way from a man on a passing Vespa.
Holdeen Partner: Vidhayak Sansad. The heart of the trip began after we had had visited the classic tourist sites. We had been in India already 10 days when we flew to Mumbai to Vivek Pandit’s training compound in Usgaon, north of Mumbai, called Vidhayak Sansad. It is affiliated with the trade union that he also established in his drive to organize landless laborers. His work in this lifelong campaign is focused in Mumbai, but also in rural villages on the outskirts of the city. After many successful campaigns to free the indentured peoples and returning native lands to villagers, Pandit was elected to the State Legislature of Maharashtra as one of only a handful of independents. (Pandit has decided to stay at the state level rather than seek national office because states often have more power and direct impact upon people’s lives.) Although he himself was born a Brahmin, he has dedicated himself to improving the lives of the lowest caste, the Dalit, and to the Atavasi, or tribal people. We were honored that he had come to the training compound to meet us and talk with us. (To read more about the organization go to vidhayaksansad.org) Pandit has gone on several hunger strikes, when all else has failed, and because of his victories and his dedication, he has many loyal followers. However, he is always in danger because of crime syndicates who are behind unlawful development. These syndicates are notorious for assassinating anyone who opposes them.
We discussed possible areas for ICUUW partnership with each of the UU organizations we visited.
Vidhayak Sansad-Residential School for Girls. The school for tribal girls at the training camp where we stayed is most inspiring and is in need of operating support for teachers’ salaries. The girls seem to appreciate, as do their families, the rare opportunity the school provides to receive an education. We also visited a nearby brick factory where young tribal children were not so fortunate– they were working and not in school.
Holdeen Partner: Self-Employed Women’s Association. Pandit’s organization, along with 31 other organizations is a partner of the Holdeen India Program, directed by Kathy Sreedhar. Kathy lives part of every year in India, which is a second home to her. Kathy, who helped plan our trip, welcomed our band of travelers and escorted us first to meet with Vivek Pandit and then flew with us to Gujarat where we visited a farming cooperative of the Self Employed Women’s Association. It was there that we met with SEWA’s Director Reema Nanavaty who had invited us to attend a meeting of their regional directors. Hillary Clinton has visited SEWA and late last year when he visited India Reema was invited to meet President Obama. She gave specific examples of ways ICUUW might help SEWA including: longer stays of up to two months by volunteers who could help write about SEWA in English and could also teach English to their members and help with development of their website.
Unitarian Friends in the Khasi Hills. After leaving Gujarat, we flew to Guwahati in the State of Meghalaya in the foothills of the Himalayas. From there we drove four hours to the capital city of Shillong where we met with our sisters who attended the Convocation in Houston in 2009, Creamlimon Nongbri, Battinora Rani and Dorismoom Milliemngap. We also met with Rev. Derrick Parriat, the President of the North East Indian Unitarian Union (UUNEI), and Rev. Pearl Greene Marbaniang, who is on the UUNEI Ex. Comm.
Since the Convocation, Cream, Batti and Doris, officers of the Women’s Wing of UUNEI, Seng Kynthei, have organized medical camps that have served hundreds of women and children in the villages of the Khasi Hills. We had arranged to bring them medical equipment and supplies, which they had asked for: stethoscopes, scales, and blood pressure monitors. Creamlimon, a new director of ICUUW is also a member of the Executive Committee. of UUNEI. She told us of other needs, particularly for financial assistance for elementary schools supported by the UUNEI. She told us that Seng Kynthei has begun planning a program to prevent family violence, which they would like to incorporate into the health camps. While there we bought many hand-loomed scarves, which we hope to make available to you at our booth at General Assembly in Charlotte. Sale of the scarves will help Seng Kynthei continue its work.
We visited the Children’s Village in Kharang, an orphanage for Unitarian children, where American Catie Scudera was also visiting. I had met Catie several years ago at General Assembly in Salt Lake City where she talked about her experiences working with orphans in the Children’s Village. I believe it was this experience that helped her decide to pursue a career in the ministry. She is now at Harvard Divinity School working toward her degree. It was wonderful to listen to her explanation of the orphanage and its needs. ICUUW and the congregations represented on the trip are considering what we might do to help in the Khasi Hills on a long term basis.
We have slide shows on our Facebook page where you can view photos of these segments of the trip. Elsewhere in this newsletter SEWA stories are highlighted. We hope soon to add these project descriptions to our online database of projects.