Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tara Projects - stone carvers

traffic jam

Dehli - Raj, the shoeshine boy

Out for a morning walk in search of an American style cup of coffee, I was soon shadowed by a shoeshine boy. He was most persistent that I should be his first customer of the day. He followed me, requesting again and again to shine my shoes, for several blocks. I went into the restaurant for my coffee and to read the paper. When I came out, he was waiting for me. So, we walked together back to the hotel where I was expecting to meet the rest of group and go out for breakfast. He had very limited English but he started to tell me a bit more about himself (this was very smart from a business perspective and I started to like him…). He was without parents and supporting his younger brother from his meager shoeshine earnings, from what I could make out. His name was Raj. He had softened me up by now and I was ready to have him shine my shoes but I really didn’t have time. So, I told him that if he was still in the area he could do my shoes after I finished breakfast with group.
We had a leisurely breakfast together with our tour group and Ivan, Minha an Anand from Asha Handicrafts. After breakfast we walked back onto the street and there he was waiting for me. It had now been about three hours since he first met me on the street. I’ve no idea why he was so persistent. Surely there must have been many other customers for him to pursue but for some reason he remained fixed with certainty that I needed to be his first customer that day. I learned later that the first customer of the day was an important Hindu ritual and considered to be an indication of the blessings that where to follow for the rest of day. I watched him do a quick little prayer of thanks right at my feet as he closed up his shoeshine box and thanked God for my business.
He gave me a terrific shoeshine (I don’t know if he transformed me into a “movie star” like he said he would, but the shoes looked great) and with Ivan and Anand as interpreters I was able to learn more about his family life as he worked on my shoes. He is 19 years old and has been the sole supporter of his only sibling, a younger brother around 12 years old, for the last 6 or 7 years. His Mother died in child birth and the circumstances around his Father’s death were a little unclear although he seemed to indicated illness was the reason. He indicated that he had struggled with many types of jobs to earn a living to support himself and his brother. Recently he had “rented” his shoeshine box for 30 rupees a day (about 80 cents Canadian). Anything above that was his profit. He was badly wanting to own his own box and he told me that a new one was about 550 rupees (maybe $12). The price was huge for him, but the daily rent was also the difference between indenture and independence. I was ready to just give him the 550 rupees but how could I be sure he was telling the truth? I could only speak to him in very broken English and had only known him for a few hours.
Ivan and Anand agreed with me that Raj seemed to be a very sincere fellow and they also wanted to help him. So, there on the street in Delhi, we possibly planted a mustard seed (see Jesus’ parable in Matthew ). I asked Raj to walk us back to the hotel. I went up to my room and retrieved my Nike baseball cap for a gift. I gave it Raj and then paid him 200 rupees (about 10 or 20 times the street rate) for the shoeshine (in the meantime he had also done Luke’s shoes) and Ivan and Anand explained to him that it was for the purposes of purchases his own shoeshine box. They then told him that on Feb 28th they would be back in Delhi on another Asha visit and, if he had added 50 rupees to the 200, they would give him another 100 rupees towards his goal. It wasn’t about the $12 for us (we spent more than that minutes later in the market), it was about how to help Raj and to maintain his dignity and provide sustainability in his life. I later discussed with Ivan and Anand the possibility of setting up a loan fund for shoeshine boys that would borrow them the 550 rupees for boxes (perhaps even built by other Asha artisans) and manage their loan payments. They were intrigued about the idea and said they would explore it. I could imagine a Ten Thousand Villages “Living Gift” campaign of buy a shoeshine box! Think of it, just $12 to put a young man into business and the building of the boxes sustains other Artisans (and the idea is hatched on a “learning tour”)!
This is a picture of Raj standing with Luke and wearing the baseball cap I gave him . When we were done with the whole thing he was calling me father and Luke his brother. The contradiction that is India once again hits me squarely in the chest. Two son’s, both 19, one educated, employed, going to university, strong and healthy. One impoverished, unemployed, hungry, dirty and quite possibly (though I don’t know) homeless. Both of them intelligent, kind, hard working and worthy of the best father possible. And India was again melting my heart and I was trying to swallow the ever present lump in my throat. The night we left Raj waited outside the hotel door for quite awhile because he wanted my cell number. I never gave it to him. I tried to explain to him that his relationship needed to be with Ivan, Anand and Asha Handicrafts. That felt lousy. So why, on this last day in Delhi, with only a few hours remaining till we go home, did I connect with Raj? Did God send me & Luke to India to be a part of planting a new seed of fair trade? We don’t know, but the trip has been a powerful blessing to both of us.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Delhi - morning coffee

After touring the Taj Mahal and Fort Bahdra in Agra yesterday we loaded up and drove to Delhi for our final day. The Taj Mahal was stunning of course and awesome. However, it seems almost heresy to say this, but I tend to agree with Diana’s assessment that I thought it would be bigger. I guess after all the years of looking at pictures and hearing about it perhaps it does become bigger than reality. Anyways, a truly memorable experience and a stunning structure. Also a fascinating story to go with it.
It was another long day driving in the van. The trip was unremarkable relative to our daily travels. Which is to say that it was packed with sites and sounds that will take me months and possibly years to adequately process. For an average Canadian the simple act of being driven around in India is endlessly fascinating. If anyone tells you otherwise, I would check their pulse. We got lost in Delhi for a while and so we arrived at our hotel around 6:30 pm. Delhi strikes me as a city with a slightly higher standard of living than the others we’ve seen, but it might just be where we were driving. Our hotel is modest but adequate. It is unfortunately situated along a hotel strip and there are tourist haggler’s and hawker’s by the score. You have to keep your eyes fixed forward and walk with purpose to keep them at bay. Most of them are agents working for other hotels and they are trying to get you to switch hotels. I was looking for an internet connection and quickly learned that either I had to switch to a hotel with a connection or I had to give up all of my personal ID to get on-line. I think they might be selling the information to the call centre shops all over India. Whenever they insist on a phone number, I write down my parent’s defunct Winnipeg number. I found one place that wasn’t asking for too much info but then they wanted to photocopy my passport. So, I walked out. Unlike other businesses, they didn’t follow me out begging me to come back and lowering the price. It was obvious that what they wanted was my information, not my business. The Cyber Café owners seem to revel in the fact (and I guess I don’t blame them) that they actually have something that the tourists really want and they make us go to ridiculous lengths just to get 30 minutes of time to check e-mail. They don’t realize they are actually undermining themselves. A foreigner should open a customer friendly Cyber Café here – they would do a booming business.
The next morning I gave up the hunt for an internet connection and just went for a walk and to find a good cup of black coffee (I’m getting a little tired of the milky and sweet Indian coffee). Instead of doing my tourist march-walk, I just relaxed and whistled lightly while carrying my newspaper. The reaction on the street was fascinating. I turned from a business target into an interesting foreigner. I was still approached by rickshaw drivers and shoe polishers but they just asked politely and when I said no they engaged me in other conversation. A young boy (well, maybe not so young, I’ve realized that young adult Indians generally seem to look much younger to me than they actually are) who started out wanting to polish my shoes finally gave up the sales pitch and just walked beside me telling me about how he lost his parents and now supports his brother. I love wandering around like this and letting the encounters happen. I feel sorry for the women in our group who aren’t really safe doing this. It’s a marvelous experience. Diana intends to travel alone to the south of India for the next three weeks. She is smart and careful and will be in for some great experiences. I have not felt unsafe or threatened once on this trip.
Today it’s Republic Day in Delhi and most of the shops are closed this morning. So, I went back the hotel for my coffee. Turns out they have good coffee! So, I sit in the lobby (they only have room service, no restaurant) reading my paper and enjoying the coffee. The doors are open and as I read the clip clop of horse hoofs over the cobble stone street wafts into the lobby, carried along by a cool morning breeze. The concierge, sitting on the solid marble steps (this is a modest hotel, but still has marble everywhere, it seems to be as plentiful as chip board in Manitoba), starts to sing quietly in Hindi. It’s a perfect morning cup of coffee.
Ivan, Karen and I had a good discussion about what we are taking from this trip over supper last night. I’m so impressed with Ivan. Just 26 years old, married 1 month and so wise and passionate about fair trade and micro economic development and a committed man of faith. I pray that Luke also sees what a giant of a man this is and how blessed we’ve been to be hosted by him. In hindsight, I think that as a young man I failed to recognize some of the great men and women that I was blessed to encounter and I missed great opportunities to learn and develop. It’s also important for “older” men, like me, to realize that we have lessons to learn from young adults.
I’m going home today and I’m anxious to see my wife, children and friends again, but there’s an ache in my heart for this country. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to think about this trip without that accompanying ache.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Drum Roll Please...

Here's what I know you've all been waiting to see...I found this guy just outside the City Palace at Jaipur... -Luke

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

the evil eye

Worried about a jealous neighbour? Two peppers and lemon should take of it. You see this combination strung up and hanging all over the place. It’s a superstitious belief to ward off the evil eye.

Jaipur - they were just lapel pins

Monday, January 22, 2007 - This was a 19-hour day packed full of sites and sounds. We arose at 3:00 to get to the Mumbai airport for a 5:30 am flight to Jaipur. Everything went smoothly. The airline was first class and Air Canada could certainly learn a few things from them.
How do I adequately cover this day? There was just too much. We started with a tour of a solid marble Hindu Temple that was dedicated in 1985. It is huge and the expense is unfathomable, yet it is only of 6 or 8 that the benefactor has built in India. I spoke with one of the master marble carvers still working on it. He’s been working there for 18 years! The craftsmanship is fabulous and stunning.
Then it was on to see one of Asha’s silver jewellery producers. After all of us cleaned out our wallets and packed the remaining corners of our suitcases with product, we spent some time with a couple of the artisans working just above the jewellery store. It is beautiful high quality work. They employ approximately 50 artisans through this one shop. I had to wonder if fair trade was really fair enough in this case, I purchased a number of pieces of solid silver jewellery that only added up to $85 USD total (I won’t say what – that’s a surprise for my wife and girls). Although, typically products end up about 400% to 500% marked up by the time they hit the shelf in a Villages store (I think – by the end of this trip I might be able to run a Villages store!) so, maybe I did pay a fair price from a wholesale perspective.
Then we spent the rest of the day doing what apparently thousands of other North Americans, Europeans and Japanese do here on a regular basis – site seeing. Jaipur is a beautiful city with many incredible sites, but is marred by tourism. We visited the City Palace and the Amber (Amer – locally) Palace and finished the day with a meal, camel ride and elephant ride at a Resort in the city. All very kitschy, touristy stuff, but the sites were amazing, our hosts Ivan, Mahinder and Neena (sp?) were gracious and caring and it was a great day.
Although all the sites were terrific, it was a group of Muslim kids living on the street that I will remember from this day. We arrived in Jaipur before 8:00 am and the places we wanted to visit were not yet open, so we stopped at a Hotel for some tea and breakfast. Luke and I weren’t really hungry and needed to stretch our cramped and aching bodies from the marathon (worst ache for me is my nipples – I think I now understand Noreen’s breastfeeding trauma 20 years ago – do not buy MEC running jerseys…). So we walked around the area of the hotel. Just down the street was several families living under the canopy of a commercial warehouse. There were quite a few kids of various ages. They were waving at me and incredibly cute. I asked if they wanted to come across the street for a picture under the tree. In no time I had a cluster of a dozen and pretty soon the parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws and grandparents showed up as well. They were so happy just to pose and see their picture on the viewing screen of the camera. The thought occurred to me that a meaningful social program in India would be to set-up a portable photo studio and offer affordable simple photography for these homeless families. Many of them have never seen a picture of themselves and the parents have no family picture records.
They were just old lapel pins, but it would have taken a fistful of i-Pods to create a similar reaction in Canada. Before we left on the trip I went through the box on my dresser where I had been tossing lapel pins collected over the last 15 or 20 years. It was like a lapel pin history of our lives. Pins from Winnipeg, Steinbach, Winkler, Mennonite Church Canada, Garden Valley School Division, Steinbach Credit Union, Steinbach Bible College, South Eastman Health, Winnipeg Goldeyes, Government of Manitoba, Hoeppner Reunion (I get a special kick out of thinking about that Muslim kid running around Jaipur with “Hoeppner Reunion” proudly stuck to his shirt…), etc, etc. The kid’s went crazy for them, along with the adults. The women were asking for more and pointing to their ears, meaning that they intended to use them as earrings! The 40 or 50 pins were gone in seconds.
And I walked away in tears again. Just bloody lapel pins. Damn it! Has the world gone so freak’n mad that people have to live with such blessed little pleasures in their lives? Deep breath Ron, got to get through this trip in one piece. It’s o.k., you’re just a Mennonite prairie boy and this is an ancient civilization, what do you know.
This is what India does to a person. It absorbs all of your past experiences and collection of life events within seconds and then overwhelms them with the power of it’s everyday presence. If I stayed here much longer I don’t think I’d remember who I am.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


We did it! The half-marathon went exceptionally well and it was a golden moment crossing the finish line with Luke, holding hands and embracing on the other side! We ran smart, we ran hard, we ran well. Our strategy was to run long and hard at the start and shift to 10 minute runs and 1 minute walks near the end. We also took two water bottles at every chance, drinking one and dumping the other on our heads. Patrick, if you’re reading this the “power-ups” where a big help! There was nothing available for nourishment on the run other than water. We were really glad for those jell packs! The time is not record setting, but we’re actually not sure what it is. My watch tells me 2:32 but Jeremy Piercy (from Shared Earth, London) who started with us but dropped back and is quite sure he never passed us, says his time was 2:15. I think we’ll just go with that! It certainly felt like a strong run, my knees didn’t hurt, Luke’s throat didn’t hurt (although it started to again right after the race – a minor miracle for him) and even my heart rate was an incredibly low. The only negative was after the run, we had to stand in a 2 ½ hour line up to return our running chips. I was sorely (literally) tempted to give up the $30 and keep the chip. Totally ridiculous to have marathoner’s standing around in the sun right after a run. I was amazed that I never saw anyone collapse. The upside was having a nice chat with a Mumbai resident standing in line next to me.
Anyways, this wasn’t about our performance. It was a great event. We missed nearly all of the festivities waiting in line, but there was around 30,000 runners and the streets were lined with people cheering us on the whole time. There were massive conga lines weaving all over the streets in the Dream Run with thousands of people carrying banners and dressed in costumes, it was great! A television reporter asked me several questions at the end of the race, so, who knows – maybe we’ll be on Indian TV! If we are I hope they don’t cut the comment about Asha Handicrafts, I know they’d be pleased with the coverage. I'm not sure how we've done on the overall goal of $32,000 CDN in fundraising. I think we made it though. The UK group raised about $9,000 Pounds and I think we've raised around $10,000 CDN so we should be really close.
Unfortunately there will be no pictures of us running. We couldn’t carry a camera and the rest of the group was in the Dream Run and, again, because of waiting in line after we missed connecting with them totally. We just got back to the hotel and Luke is asleep already. I’m so proud of him, he gave it everything to do this with me. I’m such a blessed Dad. And now, I’m going to follow Luke’s lead and hit the sack (our relentless schedule has us up and off to the airport at 4:00 am to fly to Jaipur). It’s such a good hurt.