Saturday, January 20, 2007

No Picture Day...Mumbai, 12 hours till we run

After a pre-marathon workshop at Asha, I took an afternoon off to rest up for the marathon tomorrow. It’s my first free time since leaving Steinbach and that feels like about a year ago. It’s interesting how constant change and unfamiliarity seems to make time stand still. Constant change and familiarity (like at home) is just the opposite, time races past.
I was too wound up to actually just sit around and rest. Plus, I needed some safety pins for my running bib. I’m running as number 5003 with the subtitle “VETERAN”. Either I’ve been recruited to the Indian Army or they are under the sadly guided impression that I’ve been here before! Anyways, back to getting the safety pins. It was a long meandering walk till I found a small “general store” along the street and picked up a couple of packages of pins (I think all 7 of us will likely need them). I mentally stored landmarks as I walked because I was quickly in unfamiliar territory. On the way back I started to forget my landmarks, but told myself I’d know it when I see it. And it worked, I made it back to the hotel without any wayward incidents (although I kind of hoped I would get lost, just for the adventure - but then I wouldn’t rest…). I passed all kinds of interesting things and my photographer’s finger was on the trigger the entire walk. But I took no pictures. I couldn’t do it. These are people living their everyday lives, not monuments, not sideshows, not performers. For Canadians the pictures would tell a powerful and necessary story, but how do I communicate that as I invade their personal space?
Instead, I just walked up to people and talked to them (well, o.k., I was brave enough two times). There is a slum area just a few hundred meters from the hotel. I stopped in front of a roadside stand where a fellow about Luke’s age was setup with an ancient sewing machine. The stand was about the size of the little shelters that farmers in our area setup at the end of driveways for their kids to wait for the school bus. Except it was made from about 10 different materials of various types and shapes and leaning together at crazy angles. As we briefly talked (it was difficult as his English was almost nil), I thought how vast the chasm was between us and yet how small. As small as stopping to care. Stopping to take interest. Stopping to see him as more than a quaint picture addition to the thousands of images I already have. It’s really the same at home. How many unseen neighbours do I have? The Dutch Connection trailer court is not unlike some of the sites over here. It’s nicely tucked away though, out of site, not lining the road beside a nice hotel. We’re very sly at home, oh so careful about protecting ourselves from our own visions of poverty. And so quick to blame people for their circumstances.
Jesus follows the Beautitudes with the passages on being Salt and Light (check out Matthew 5 for a change). After blessing the poor, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty and the mourning, he tells the rest of us to make a bloody difference. It’s no coincidental alignment of scripture. I feel like He’s walking right beside me on this trip and “gnarking” me the whole time (something my Uncles used to say when they got fed up with me nagging them to drive the tractor on my summer farm visits – probably some low-german derivative twisted into English…).
Immanuel, Asha Resource Centre Manager, closed his presentation at the workshop with the story of the starfish. You know the one. The moral being that throwing just one of the millions of starfish washed up on the seashore back into the sea may seem pointless, but it makes all the difference to that one. It’s true of course and a very appropriate description of the work of Asha and Ten Thousand Villages. So many lives have been changed and in some cases a cycle of poverty has even been broken for a family or a small community.
But I’m a macro-economist. I don’t fully buy it. It makes all the difference to the one but it doesn’t end the cycle. It doesn’t change the absolute certainty that the tides will continue to form and millions will continue to die. I think we need both. We need the fair traders who will work at the micro economics and affect change in small increments that occasionally become larger agents of change. But we also need the Ghandi’s to affect system change. Jesus was very personal in His ministry, one on one. But in the final gesture, He sacrificed it all to affect global change. Maybe, we all just need to realize that He’s done it by living like we believe it. And maybe Canadian Mennonites need a new Anabaptist Ghandi to stir up our placid and comfortable lives. I’ve been wearing my “make poverty” white arm band from Ten Thousand Villages for about 6 months without taking it off. It feels like an empty statement here in India. I feel like I should throw it in one of trash filled gutters running all over this neighbourhood. Wonder if Bono has ever been to India?
Well, see you at the finish line!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cave Rapper

Back in Mumba - 48 hours till we run

I thought I knew something, I thought I did something, I thought I made a difference. I know nothing, I understand nothing, I affect nothing. The greatest democracy on earth is a contradiction too wide, too deep and too far to explain. A few days ago I was beginning to think that India was a Country in the process of imploding. Today we spent the day touring the business, banking and government districts of Mumbai. It’s huge, it’s powerful and it’s expanding at rates we would find unbelievable in Canada.

We spent the day in broad 6 lane avenues graced with palatial homes and new steel and glass office towers. I thought I understood how this works. A student of economics, business, political science and commerce I was taught to believe in the democractic/capitalist miracle of the majority middle class. It’s not here. I see only the super elite/super rich, a modest managerial/technical middle class and a majority of desperate poor. Why? Where is the trickle down of capitalist wealth? Why are so many millions completely outside of this economic rebirth and when will they be included? The contradiction hits us full in the face as we sit at the beautiful city centre in traffic gridlock and children appear, as if from no where (and everywhere), and thrust their hands through the windows to hawk something or simply to beg. We stop at a swanky Bank to cash some travelers cheques, first I’ve ever seen a guard with a double barrel shotgun at the door (he would NOT let me take his picture…). Then we walk around the corner to the vehicle and there’s street barber where you can get a shave and a haircut for 5 or 6 rupees (yup, that’s right, “shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits” is still a reality here).

I was encouraged to learn that the poor are a political force. In Dahvari, largest slum in Asia, the land has become valuable for development. To protect the slum residents the government has passed laws that include the limiting of hi-rise developments to only certain heights unless developers build new homes for the poor and relocate them. There are also laws protecting the displacement of slum residents unless they are relocated at the developers expense and give new housing.
Nonsense Journal (2)…
We did a very touristy thing today and took a ferry to Elephanta Island. About a 45 minute ferry ride South of Mumbai on an Island in the Arabian Sea. Although the Island has no elephants, it is named for a life size carved stone elephant that was discovered on the Island. However, the Stone Elephant has been moved to the zoo in Mumbai. But there are still the carved stone caves from the 7th century. Fantastic structures that were well worth visiting. We discovered that they also had amazing acoustics and Luke had a little fun with rap beats and scales! (see the youtube post Cave Rapper - above)
I bartered again today and I think I made a good deal as well. A 2GB SD Card for the camera for about $45 ($2,000 rupees). This will really help with all the video snaps I’ve been trying to take. But there’s really no joy in the bartering when you do it from a position of relative wealth. It makes some sense to me when it’s between individuals of relatively equal economic position. But it seems ridiculous for me to be wanting to pay less than Canadian prices just because I can. Not to mention that I’m here for the purpose of promoting fair trade. So, I guess I’m part of the contradiction that is India.

Sorry these pictures are all messed up - Luke is in bed fighting a sore throat, how can you tell!

Ahmedabad – day 2

We started the day with a tour of the St. Mary’s Womens Co-op, which is run by the Dominican Nuns here. The co-op provides work in textile embroidery for about 450 women. It is an astounding operation which includes a school and a hospital. We met the women at the facility and observed how the products are made including the training centre. It is beautiful hand embroidery which is put on wall hangings, shirts, handbags, table clothes, etc. The women live right around the Co-op and are able to do the work at home and make trips to the co-op for training, picking up more materials, quality inspections and receiving payments on their work. They said that Ten Thousand Villages is their largest product purchaser. I was so pleased to hear that because the program clearly makes a fantastic difference in the lives of these people.
We broke up into groups of two and went visiting the women in their homes in the slum. This was such a moving experience. I am still trying to figure out exactly what it meant. Visiting these people in their slum homes was like traveling to another world. And for the most part these were good slum homes. They had tin roofs, cement walls, tile floors, hydro and running water. They even have property ownership. The embroidery work that St Mary’s provides has been key to making this possible for these families. Today we have experienced first hand the beginning and the end of the Ten Thousand Villages supply chain. It all starts with identifying the needs of these families and it ends with providing for at least part of those needs. This is why I’m here. This is why I’m involved with MCC. This is hands and feet for my faith. This is meaningful discipleship and profound ministry. Spending my time at the Board table doesn’t always reflect the holy ground on which this work treads. God goes before us in this work and we need to see his face in these people.
The curiosity about us was at least equal to our fascination with the slum life. The doorways were crowded with neighbours who came to see who was visiting and why. One young girl, with a three month old baby, appeared in the doorway and asked our interpreter something. He waved her into the room and then announced that she was requesting if Luke and I would give her a new name for her baby! We kind of smiled politely and laughed it off and proceeded to change the subject. However, she persisted and asked again. This time taking the covers off the baby and showing her to me for a picture. So, Eleanor, Yvonne or Lana if your reading this there may be a baby in Ahmedabad that is your name sake!

The slum was just beside St Mary’s and as we walked back I came upon a scene straight from Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” which you simply must read. There were three tailors, all young adult men, crammed into a old shack right beside the street. Veejay, who was our interpreter, said they would be working as sub-contractor’s on a piece work basis – just like in the novel!

In the afternoon we went to Ghandi’s Ashram and toured the grounds. The 82 year old Tour Guide there pointed out to us that the name of Ten Thousand Villages comes from Ghandi’s writings. I noticed that one of the principles of Ashram life was control of the palate and this included not eating spicy food. You have to be here to imagine just how radical that is! There are entire markets devoted to spices of every flavour you can imagine and more.

After the Ashram we went to the Stepping Well of Adaj. This is a beautiful stone sculptured well from the 15th century and it has a tragic romantic history. If I got the story right it was built by a Muslim King for a beautiful Hindi woman who said she’d marry him if he built the well for her. He built the well and had the architect and master builder’s murdered so that another well could never be built. Marriage between a Hindu and Muslim was forbidden that the Hindi women threw herself into the well because she could not marry the King.

Nonsense Journal (1)…
India has this interesting, quirky, beauracratic, and trivial tendency that we keep running into in hilarious ways. For example, while visiting the Jain temple, there was a “keeper of the shoes” (there is a person for every little task imaginable, particularly at monuments and public historical sites…I often have no idea why there are people appearing in pathways and doorways, apparently just to watch us in a pretentiously official way as we walk past) and he processed the storage of our shoes in most ceremonial and official fashion. We had to line up in a semi-circle around him and remove our footwear one by one while he took out numbered tokens and proceeded to give them to each of us. Behind him was a large box with cubbyholes for the footwear (like in a bowling alley) and there were corresponding numbered slots. When he finally got to Luke and me (everything being done slowly and with much deliberation), he paused for a long time to assess where to put our shoes in the virtually empty box with about 75 cubbyholes. Finally, he selected slot 66 and then but both pairs of our shoes in their and gave us token number 49. Luke and I held our sides until we were a respectful distance away and then roared! Ah, India! (Remind me to tell you also about the Tour “Nazi” at the Textile Museum some time…)
In the evening we went to a night market and then out for supper to a great Indian restaurant. Sister Lucia and Sister Sylvia from St. Mary’s hosted us fabulously. After the meal, walking to the car, we attracted the attention of street beggars again, as had been the case most of the day. By now my money belt was feeling like a lead weight. The boy shadowing me, maybe 13 years old, was carrying a couple of balloons that he had twisted together and was trying to interest me in for 100 rupees (around $2). The price quickly dropped to 50 rupees and then to nothing as he simply held out his hand and pointed to his stomach. My heart was breaking, if there was any structure left to it that could actually break after these past 5 days, and the wad of 50 rupee notes in my pocket felt like a file of convictions. All of them writ large with greed, indulgence, over consumption and injustice. Sister Sylvia came to my rescue (“my” rescue, the irony…) with a doggie bag of leftovers from supper, which she had thoughtfully requested and now gave to the boy. Matthew sums up Jesus’ ministry in Mtt 4:17 by simply stating, From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” I find that popping into my head for some reason. As India takes another piece of my heart, another day ends.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Our day started at 4:30 am as we packed for the train ride north to Ahmedabad from Mumbai. We hired two taxi’s for the group. These are a slightly larger version of the three wheeled auto-rickshaw which seem almost as numerous as the people Whenever you think that it can’t possibly get more crowded or chaotic, it does. Whenever you think you’ve seen the most persons packed into a tiny rickshaw or taxi you see more. About the first time that I’ve seen one of these drivers challenged with carrying capacity was with our luggage. The drivers seem baffled by how much we are carrying around and how to arrange it into an efficiently packed space. We all thought we were modest and practical by packing no more than 2 bags each, a day pack and a suitcase.
But when you put it all together it’s looks like enough to fill a half ton truck. And half-tons, SUV’s, and mini-vans are simply not around. Maybe all our baggage, or what it represented, is what annoyed our taxi driver. I ended up sitting up front with him (close beside him – this vehicle is not much bigger than an Austin mini) and when I asked him if he spoke English he flashed me a very angry look and a pronounced NO! I kept to myself for the rest of trip while Luke, Karen and Arlene in the back seat giggled.

How long have we been here – two days, two weeks, a month? I have to think hard about that. It’s just day three but my mind is racing with thoughts, my ears are aching with sound and my eyes, my poor eyes, they’ve never processed so many different and intriguing images in a constant stream. It’s just the last 24 hours that I want to journal, but I can’t focus my thoughts on where to start. I’m jumping around in my mind from one experience to the next, unable to weave the fantastic chaos of the day into a coherent story.

I fought back tears for the first time today. Strange in a way. As I anticipated the trip I kind of braced myself for the poverty and despair that I knew would affront my senses. However, it was the trip to a 15th century Mosque in Ahmedabad that broke me down. As we toured the palatial grounds of this ancient site, the speakers came on and the Oman began the call to prayers. There were many locals (Muslims I assume) around and they were fascinated by us. They asked to take pictures with us, like we were dignitaries or something. As that ancient call to prayer filled the air and combined with their genuine friendliness I felt suddenly felt tears welling up as I thought about how our world was so filled with hatred and war between Muslim and Christian. I had to walk away from Sister Sylvia, the nun from St. Mary’s (where we will visit tomorrow) who is our guide for the afternoon and evening, and cover my tears. I notice Luke is drawing a lot of attention from the kids and teens (particularly the teenage girls – which looks really curious as they are dressed in kurti’s and sari’s and he is in jeans and a t-shirt). At one point he inadvertently walks past an entrance where the rest of us went into. When he realizes it and turns around, there are about a dozen people right behind him all pointing helpfully to where we are!
As we bomb around Ahmedabad (the hotel driver assigned to us is a complete maniac who manages to draw out the international symbol of other annoyed drivers every few hundred feet as we blare our horn, cut people off and push them out of the way) we are waved at, called out to and even followed by total strangers who are just interested in seeing us. on the street. I could fill pages trying to describe what traveling is like. It really is beyond description.
An auto-rickshaw loaded with about 7 or 8 school girls follows us for several KM’s weaving in and out of traffic so they can keep waving and greeting us. They are incredibly cute as they alternate pushing their faces out the sides and backs of the rickshaw to wave. The driver is grinning ear to ear as we snap pictures and he keeps his poor rickshaw, with it’s 70cc engine floored trying to stick to our bumper.

The ancient Bazaar with more sari’s and kurti’s than I ever thought possible, roof top dining in Ahmedabad, the train porter selling books with titles like Mein Kampf, 101 Moral Stories about Grandpa, Sexy, Stylish and Spirited, our picture on the cover of the sports page (beside David Beckham, as Luke pointed out) of The Free Press Journal of Mumbai. My head is swimming, I literally get dizzy trying to journal about the day.

I badly need to run. But I’ve no idea where to run. There are no open spaces. I can’t understand how the 30,000 people who will be in the marathon have completed their training. Running 4 or 5 times a week in this traffic, I just can’t fathom.

Monday, January 15, 2007

press and getting around

Today we went to the offices of Asha Handicrafts (the organization in India that Villages purchases products from), met the staff and received a tour of the facility and orientation to the program. We also went to their first retail outlet, a brand new store in a new mall somewhere in Mumbai (I've no idea, I was so lost from the minute we started driving). It's a beautiful store with great style, design and branding. We were all very impressed at what an excellent job they've done of their first ever retail outlet.
Asha had also organized a press conference regarding the marathon and what a press conference it was! The whole thing took around 3 hours and I counted approximately 25 reporters and photographers. None of us were really prepared for such a major press conference. Karen did a great job of delivering an off-the-cuff statement to the press and then they randomly interviewed the rest of us. There were also significant speeches by Asha staff and four rounds of "running" while the photographers snapped pictures of us! Bizarre we could actually end up with our pictures in major Mumbai newspapers and interviews on the radio. 15 weeks ago I couldn't run 3KM's and now Mumbai journalists are asking me if I've been a life long runner and how many events I've competed in! Life has some strange twists.
We drove and drove and drove through Mumbai today and it was endlessly fascinating. A river teaming with life passes the car window. Look to one side and there is a family of five on a motorcycle smaller than my old '78 Honda CB400. Look to the other side and there's a fellow, more like a human OX, pulling an old old trailer loaded with possibly 1,000 lbs of building materials. And I'm coming from a media interview for getting off the couch and running a few miles... I'm starting to understand how India takes one's heart.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Holy Cow! We’re in India!

We arrived at the airport in Mumbai around 11 p.m. after a smooth flight from Paris. The arrival is surreal. How else to describe it? I keep having to remind myself that I am not in a movie, this is the real thing. The first thing to impact me is the air. It’s palpable. I had read descriptions that you could taste the air in Mumbai and it’s true. The atmosphere exudes/oozes descriptions of every kind and yet eludes adequate reflection of any kind.

We are met by a couple of men apparently employees of the Park View Hotel, where we will stay for the next two days. A short walk takes us to a van for the ride to the hotel. We are immediately shadowed by a mother and child begging for money. They say nothing but shadow us with their palms upraised. They both look just like any telethon charity fundraiser that I’ve ever seen. As soon as the bags are loaded in the van, the haggling begins. They want $20 US for loading the bags, then $20 CDN when they realize we are not Yankees. Then 250 Rupees, finally they settle most begrudgingly for 50 rupees (more than twice the amount our guide books tell we should pay). Diana handles the negotiation and stands firm for the final settlement.

The ride to the hotel is fascinating. The van driver blows the horn approximately every 10 seconds. Apparently it’s a driving courtesy to warn when you are close to someone (most all of the time) and when you intend plow through an intersection. There is a sea of vehicles all around us moving and merging and surging. In a kind of ordered chaos the horns, all going at once, seem to be having a conversation of sorts that somehow determines who will pass and when.

It’s 1:00 AM and dark but the scene along the road is stunning. Street after street looks like uninhabitable shacks. Then you realize that they are all active businesses, apartments, restaurants, hotels, etc. I notice that there are hundreds of people sleeping along the side lanes of the street. All manner of cobbled together shelters line the roads. Some apartments looked like they’ve been bombed out and then reinhabited by draping canvas and tarps over the crumbling walls and missing doors, windows and roofs. It’s frightening and fascinating and despairing all at once. I spend most of the night tossing and turning trying to process just this one 20 minute ride to the hotel. Finally I get up and start writing some notes at about 6:45 AM. It is totally dark. At 7:00 AM God turns on the light, it’s morning, just like that. No sunrise. I’ve no idea how I am going to absorb what lies ahead in the next two weeks. It’s fantastic to be sharing this with Luke.

“The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air. I could smell if before I saw or heard anything of India, even as I walked along the umbilical cord that connected the plane to the airport. I was excited and delighted by it, in that first Bombay minute….but I didn’t and couldn’t recognize it. I know now that it’s the sweet sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate, and it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them human and rats. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers.”

- David Gregory Roberts, Shantaram