Fatehpur Sikiri…

…After getting up early and fighting enormous crowds to see the Taj, we were already tired by one o’clock. I also thought that nothing would seem impressive after visiting a wonder of the world. However, we rallied with the help of some pizza hut, hired a car, and took the hour drive west to Fatehpur Sikiri and were very pleased that we did. Fatehpur Sikiri is a hilltop walled city that was built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1571 and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire for 14 years.

In case you are wondering, most of the major monuments, including the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort in Agra as well as the Red Fort and Jami Masjid in Old Delhi were all constructed by the Mughal Emperors (usually called Mogul Emperors in America), who ruled most of the Indian Subcontinent from 1526 until their decline from power in the early 1700’s, although they were officially ousted in 1858 by the British Raj.

List of the reigns of the prominent Mughal Emperors and the projects created under their control:

1526–1530 Babur
1530–1539, 1555–1556 Humayun (Humayun’s Tomb)
1556–1605 Akbar (Fatehpur Sikiri, Agra Fort)
1605–1627 Jahangir
1628–1658 Shah Jahan (Red Fort, Jami Masjid, Taj Mahal)
1658–1707 Aurangzeb

Emperor Akbar reigned here before moving control to Agra Fort. If you ever go to Agra, try to go to Fatehpur Sikiri as well. Here are some glimpses of palatial quarters in the 1570’s.


–Intricate carvings adorning one of the many sandstone buildings–


–Praying in Jami Masjid, the World Heritage Site alongside Fatehpur Sikiri–

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The Taj Mahal…

…Finished 359 years ago, it is still considered by many to be the most beautiful building in the world. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and, after seeing it in person, I have no doubt as to why. Construction of the Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) began in 1632 and required the labor of 20,000 people for nearly 22 years. It is the paramount example of Mughal architecture and was heavily influenced by Persian, Turkish, and earlier Indian design. Made of white marble from the state of Rajesthan inlaid with semiprecious stones from throughout the Middle East and Asia, it is quite literally a massive jewel.

However, neither descriptions nor photos can properly convey the magnificence of this place. There is one element, however, that I believe the photos here do capture. From nearly every angle and at nearly every time of day, the Taj exists like some sort of optical illusion. Even in person, it looks like a pristine painting that is too perfect to be considered realistic.

As you can read on the inscription in the photo below, the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his third and presumably favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to her 14th child. The entire time that I was within the Taj and the surrounding gardens, I could not help but think what a powerful legacy this man left for himself and his wife. I doubt if anyone can properly describe the Taj Mahal and I am certain that I cannot, so I will just let the photos speak for themselves.

Bus Crash…

Sorry for the delay everyone but Happy New Year! As I had expected, the internet was too slow in Agra to process my posts. Therefore, I am going back to post them now. Agra, especially the Taj Mahal, was incredible. We arrived home safely tonight in a hired car which was infinitely more pleasant and safer than the bus. I will fill in all the missing details about the weekend tomorrow. Here is the post from December 30.

..Simply riding in a vehicle in India is an exhausting, frustrating, and harrowing experience. There are only rare lanes, almost no traffic lights, and seemingly few rules. It’s hard to describe or even comprehend just how aggravating it is to travel here because there is nothing even remotely similar to compare it to.

On Friday at 7am, we caught a bus toward Agra. There is no bus stop, bus station, or anything that would suggest a bus even comes by. A tuk-tuk driver, instructed by our Host-Dad, just took us to the highway and flagged down a bus going south. A man who essentially serves as a conductor for the bus and sits by the door verified that the bus was going to Agra. We boarded and found just what we had expected. The bus was frigid, filthy, and well-worn with peanuts and litter covering the floor, seats shredded by overuse, and windows barely transparent from scratches and dirt. The ride was to take five hours in good weather, but this morning was foggy, damp, and gloomy.

About an hour into the ride, the bus pulled over to the side of the road. Almost everyone got off the bus and scattered around to pee wherever suited them. After finishing business, people bought snacks and chai and got back onto the bus just to throw the Styrofoam cups and plastic wrappers out the window or on the floor.

To keep warm, I had put on every shirt I had packed and placed my big backpack in my lap. Like most Indian drivers I have ridden with, this bus driver’s actions were unpredictable, not to mention uncomfortable. Incessantly blaring the horn and slamming on the brakes, he was driving just like everyone else.

Three hours into the ride, the brakes slammed on again. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I had come to expect the severe braking, then a honk, then acceleration. Not this time though. At about 15 mph, we hit the cargo truck in front of us. The windshield shattered and the bus jolted to a stop. Everyone was ok, but many of the passengers had been asleep and had not braced for the impact at all. There were some bloody lips and I imagine black eyes and bruised cheekbones the next day. However, we were all fine and luckily only inconvenienced rather than injured.

We got off the bus with our bags and stood in the eerie fog on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. It was only then that I realized we were one of a chain of about 10 different accidents. Although lanes are painted on the road no one follows them. As a result, our bus was immobilized right in the middle of the main highway between Delhi and Agra. People, debris, and our bus practically shut down the whole road. A few vehicles were managing to squeeze through. While the locals were practically starting a riot to get their money back from our bus conductor, we quietly jumped on a bus that was moving and headed toward Agra. I had thought we might spend hours there on the side of the road. We were all incredibly happy it was only about five minutes. We made it safely to Agra two hours later.

The Welcome of a Lifetime…

…Tonight, we are packing our bags for an early morning bus ride tomorrow to Agra. I figure there are few better ways to start off the New Year than to watch the sunrise on January 1, 2012 over the Taj Mahal. I will try to post daily although internet access may be difficult to find. If you do not hear from me, I wish you all a Safe and Happy New Year. I will be back on Sunday.

After helping at the hospital this morning, I went to the slum school alone for the first time. Over my last few visits to the school, I have struggled with how I can best help these precious children. Although the three full-time teachers have good intentions, there is little structure and seemingly limited progress. One teacher teaches the 12-14 year old girls how to sew. The other two teach the 50 students ages five to twelve. However, before today, I had only seen the children re-write and recite the English and Hindi alphabets as well as numbers from 1-100 over and over.

As always, my walk through the slum to the school incited a slew of emotions and reactions, both for me and the locals. Work stops and inquisitive glares come from nearly everywhere. I am now familiar to most of the people and many even know me by name. Children call out “Hi John!” from their homes and little kids swarm me to shake my hand or give me a high five. Men and women stare but then break into smiles at the slightest nod or “Namaste.”

As I approached the open door of the school, I could see the excitement on the kids faces building as the word spread that I was coming. As I stepped up into the classroom, the entire class jumped sky-high, saluted, and said “Hello Johnnnn!” To know that just by being present you brighten the day of 50 kids is all the motivation I need to go. However, to get a welcome like this just stops me in my tracks. You can’t beat a feeling like that.

Today, I wanted to see if they could apply their knowledge to reading, writing, and speaking as well as determine their understanding of mathematics. As I had suspected, there was a wide variety of ability levels mainly dependent upon age. I sat on the floor to watch class for a while, but little instruction ensued. As usual, the kids started to come to me one by one with their miniature blackboards with the letters of the alphabet practically chiseled into them. With marbles and the little chalkboards, I started to establish basic addition and subtraction. The kids speak only as much English as I speak Hindi, but the progress was noticeable and fun for all of us. A group of about ten kids gathered around as I continued to determine what they knew and did not know.

I became positive that everyone knew the alphabet as well as basic numbering but came to the conclusion that nobody could write or read and only very few could perform basic addition and subtraction.

Then, I began the most rewarding teaching experience I have ever had. I asked to use the larger chalkboard (about 2ft by 3ft in size) and the teachers thought I wanted to teach the entire class. All 50 students moved eagerly to face me. I couldn’t turn back now. There was no way that all of the kids could see the chalkboard on the wall, so I took it off of the wall and walked around with it. We started with “Hi” and worked our way through the words I knew they were familiar with. I would say a word and then we would spell it out together. Then they would write it on their little chalkboards and show me with more enthusiasm than I have ever seen in a classroom. We went through simple words like boy, girl, bye, hello, book, and shoe. Then I would go back, have them identify objects by name, then write the word and show me. Some would get it right, some would be a little off, and others would be totally lost. However, all had enormous smiles on their faces. Toward the end, I had the older, more capable students help explain to the younger students what to do. The students can’t understand most of what I say, so class was like a two-hour game of charades.

Today gave me hope that I can go back and really make a difference in their lives. Over the next 4 months, I plan to volunteer at the hospitals in the morning and then school in the afternoon. I wonder what they will be able to do and understand by May if I can build their knowledge just a little bit every day.

Hidden Gem…

…My diet here in India has been almost strictly vegetarian. Religious practices forbid even bringing meat into the house. Just about every meal comes with chapati, a pure wheat flatbread that is a nice filler but is certainly overused. Dal is the next most popular item that we eat here. It is a yellow to brown soup made of dried lentils. Wherever the dal goes, chapati follows. Next on the rotation is a lightly curried mixture of potato and cauliflower. Sometimes, we also get a salad of chopped radish and cucumber. Breakfasts are usually a sugary version of chapati on which I like to add mixed fruit jam. These five dishes, plus chai tea and water, comprise about 80% of my diet. On rare occasions, rice is substituted in the place of chapati.


–A common lunch or dinner. We were sampling the green chilly too during this meal–

Today, however, we found a hidden gem of a restaurant. At the convergence of Sectors 7 and 10 is the Sector 10 market. It is about a 20 minute walk north of our home stay. I walk through it just about every day coming home from work or to go buy necessities. It is a dusty, loud, and unappealing stretch of road. I thought we would never find a good place to eat around here. Then we happened upon the unassuming Ever Green Restaurant.

Like most Indian establishments, little effort seemed to be given to its outward appearance. Hence, I had passed it dozens of times without ever giving it a chance. This time, however, we noticed that it had a picture of chicken tikka above the door which drew us in immediately.

A short walk upstairs led us into a much more cosmopolitan and modern dining room. I was just as impressed by the atmosphere here as I had been at the barber shop last week. We were the only people in the restaurant, but it was only noon, so it didn’t bother me. We’re used to eating lunch around 2 or 3pm and dinner around 8 or 9pm here.

We ordered what we thought would be an appropriate amount of meat and waited impatiently while trying to figure out the scoring of the five-day cricket test match between India and Australia that was playing on TV (which was a luxury because it was running on either a generator or batteries since the power was out).

Then the food started coming, and coming, and coming. The server waited on us like we were royalty, serving each person every dish and assuring that were completely satisfied. It was Indian food like I had never eaten before, and it was superb! We ate dishes called boneless butter chicken, chicken rara, chicken tikka, chicken seekh kabab, a mixed “non-veg” platter, and butter naan that was practically lethal. I had thought the dishes would be somewhat small since we ordered Rs 200 ($4) half-orders. They were not.

For $8 per person, we felt like kings eating our last supper. A meal this good and with this much meat in the states would have easily cost over $80. Right as we were paying the bill and thinking that nothing could have been better, a mouse ran from under the table next to us. I pretended not to notice and tried to forget about it. Maybe he was the cook from Ratatouille! Even with the mouse, I think we found our home away from home away from home.

A Dollar A Day…

…After volunteering at the hospital and having my first dosa (basically a giant stuffed crepe) for lunch, we returned to the slum school to teach. The proper name for the school, which I learned today, is the Saheed Club Social Welfare Institution. In the afternoons, 60 children between the ages of 5 and 12 learn Hindi, English, and Math. Although they sit together on the floor in the same 10ft by 28ft room, they are divided into two groups. One group is what I equate to kindergarten and the other is called first standard (what we would call first grade). Twelve to fourteen year old girls sit in the corner of the same room and learn to sew fabric into garments which they can sell for a profit of Rs 40 (80 cents).

The children who go to school here are children who would otherwise not be in school at all. Many of the adults in the slum are illiterate and in some families both the mother and father work menial jobs such as sweeping or factory work. A typical daily income for a full-time working adult from this neighborhood is Rs 50 – Rs 150 ($1 – $3). Even the teachers receive a monthly salary of only Rs 4000 ($80). Many families either do not realize the importance of education or find ways for their children to help earn money for the family instead of going to school. Although common in Delhi and other large cities, street children and beggars are fortunately almost non-existent here in Faridabad.

We arrived when the children were still eating their lunch in their allocated space on the floor. Some kids were scraping the bottom of the five-gallon plastic bucket from which food is served.

The objective of this school is to catch children up to where they should be for their respective ages and stress the importance of education so that the kids can be transferred to a more formal public school. In the three years that the school has been in operation, 50 students that would have been left behind have been successfully transferred into the government school system. However, the teacher suspects that at most, only one or two in a hundred students will ever attend a university.

After school, we played catch with the kids and were invited into another slum home for chai. Then dozens of the students walked us to the edge of the slum on our way home, each vying for the chance to hold our hands. Once home, I joined the locals for evening badminton in the streets then took a wonderfully hot bucket bath.

Some more of my favorite photos from throughout the day:

Cerclage…

…Today at the hospital, we were given the chance to observe a cervical cerclage, which is a surgical treatment for cervical incompetence. So, if you’re bored at home, you can practice saying surgical cervical cerclage five times fast.

Cervical incompetence is often diagnosed when a pregnant woman’s cervix is too weak and therefore dilates prematurely, sometimes leading to a miscarriage or preterm birth. The patient today had had two miscarriages within the last five months, leading to a diagnosis of cervical incompetence.

Although a short surgery without any cutting, the procedure is certainly not for the squeamish. I’ll spare the graphic details today, but what essentially happens is the surgeon pulls the cervix out and uses sutures to tighten and support the cervical muscle above the opening to the cervix.

The surgery is given to pregnant women with cervical incompetence between 12 and 14 weeks. At 36-38 weeks, the sutures will be removed in preparation for a normal birth. Cervical incompetence is rare and only affects 1-2% of pregnant women.

Last night, I had my Christmas dinner with seven other volunteers at a Chinese restaurant in a mall about 30 minutes toward Delhi. The food was delicious and the company even better. We have all become quite close since our arrival. My parents called just after I had finished eating to include me in the traditional Christmas morning gift opening back home.

The ride back home after dinner was as eventful as any yet. In a three-wheeled tuk-tuk built for six passengers, three of us piled in and sang Christmas carols. Then 12 strangers crammed in with us. Although the two other volunteers laughed at my new $3 N-95 mask at first, I think they were pretty jealous by the time we returned home. At night, the pollution, dirt, and diesel exhaust combine in the still air to make breathing especially repulsive, not to mention unhealthy.

A couple of photos from around town today:

Merry Christmas…

…MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone!!! Today is my first Christmas away from home, my first Christmas out of the country, my first Christmas without a single gift to unwrap, and my first Christmas apart from family. However, this holiday, I am more grateful than ever and, thanks to technology, feel closer than I thought I would to home. I have received encouraging feedback from the blog and want to thank you all for following and writing. My gift this Christmas is your love and support. To have you sharing my experience here makes it even more meaningful to me.

Last night, my host family’s oldest daughter was admitted to the hospital for a high fever and neck swelling that had not been responding to antibiotics for several days. This morning, we had a simple breakfast in front of the Christmas tree (see below) and then took our gifts to her in the hospital. She has been undergoing a few tests but should, hopefully, be released tomorrow. I also took a bag of Hershey’s kisses that I had brought from home and handed them out throughout the hospital. All of the patients and nurses loved it.

After, having been inspired by the positive reaction at the hospital, we bought 750 pieces of chocolates to hand out near the slum school. We walked over and spent a few hours playing games with the kids and handing out candy. The candy distribution started out gently and happily. But, once the surrounding children found out what was happening, kids swooped in from everywhere. You would have thought we were handing out gold. Things got a little too rowdy though and we had to shut things down.

One boy was present today who catches my attention every time I visit the slum. He has Down syndrome but seems to get along well with the other children. He gets the biggest smile on his face when we give him any attention. He loves to be picked up by his wrists as if he were being launched off the ground. He will come up to me with his head straight back and simply point to the sky with a look in his eye no human could refuse. Although we brightened his day, he certainly brightened mine the most.

After leaving the slum, I went to meet the locals to play in their weekly Sunday afternoon cricket match. I took a new bat I had purchased earlier this week and they enjoyed it tremendously. I scored 16 runs, including a 6 run hit (basically a home run) and a 4 run hit (a grounder to the wall). My team won 43 to 41.

Tonight, all of the volunteers I know in Faridabad (including four from my orientation) are meeting at a local restaurant called Haldirams for dinner. It will be nice to get everyone under one roof and celebrate together.

Although I feel worlds away in body this Christmas, I am right with you in spirit. Merry Christmas! To my family, I love you!

Christmas Eve In The Slum…

…Having forgotten to set my alarm this morning, I was awakened by a call from my family to remind me about their holiday party back in the States. I quickly got dressed and left the house with my computer and 3G USB stick so as not to wake up any of the other seven people living here. I opened up Skype and was video chatting with nearly my entire close family 8049 miles away only seconds later. Realizing I was not tethered to Wi-Fi, I figured I’d take them on a walking tour. Then I decided we would just head straight to the nearest slum. While being passed around from one family member to another to say hello and Merry Christmas, I was able to show each a little live glimpse of the culture surrounding me. As they always do, dozens of children ran up to say hello and followed me wherever I went. I showed them my family back home and they waved to say hello, namaste, and Merry Christmas. I think it was very special and amazing for everyone. For some of my family and certainly the locals, it was their first time to video chat. To my family back home, it was so great to see you. Thanks for remembering me. Merry Christmas!

I returned home to have breakfast and then went back to the slum school to play games and celebrate. Few, if any, of the children know what Christmas is celebrated for here, but they love the attention nonetheless. We played many games and drew pictures for the kids to color in. Their favorite game was trying to pop balloons we brought by squeezing them between two people or sitting on them which, for some of the tiny kids in particular, was hilarious and adorable to watch. Some kids were not in school (it is, after all, Saturday) but they all looked in enviously wanting to join in the games. However, we made sure they got some candy and treats as well.


–The students holding up their drawings of Christmas trees, which they have never seen–

After spending a few hours at the school, the other volunteers and I walked along the canal and through the tiny walkways of the slum. Kids and young adults from all around came to welcome us. We were told by some that we were the first white people they had seen in person. We said hello to, shook hands with, and took photographs of hundreds of people. The interactions were some of the most special I have ever had.

The people here stare at us with the most inquisitive and gently warm glare that does not break for as long as we are in sight. Even people whom we had passed minutes earlier continued to stare at us and wave once we looked back.

The kids in the slum will melt your heart. Compared to kids back home, they have close to nothing. Most do not have shoes or toys or even a steady diet. But if happiness were a quantifiable state, I would be willing to bet they are just as happy as any back home.

Just to have their picture taken brings the biggest possible smiles to many of the children here. I sincerely wonder what they thought this morning to see people waving at and talking to them from America.

After about an hour of wandering throughout, we met a wonderful group of people who invited us into their home in the midst of the slum. They offered us chai and, although slightly nervous about cleanliness, we politely accepted. We were given a tour of their simple, dark home and while Neetu, one of the young ladies, heated the chai tea. Her friend, a twenty-year-old male mechanical engineering student, translated for us and officiated the tremendous hospitality. These were 20 minutes on a Christmas Eve I certainly will not forget. Here we were, receiving wonderful generosity with no expectations for anything in return from a group of young adults living in the middle of an Indian slum.


–Two of the ladies who generously welcomed us into their home for chai–

I usually won’t post this many photos, but today was exceptional.

Gifts like today cannot be given. I thank God for all of the wonderful things I have been blessed with and especially for my family and friends. Thank you all for following and Merry Christmas!

Meat!..

…Last night, I had my first meal of meat (Okay, it wasn’t exactly my first; I couldn’t resist a couple of stops at McDonald’s last weekend in Delhi). It was delicious but took a toll on all of our stomachs.

Before dinner, we observed the surgical removal of a kidney stone. What was most fascinating was that the surgeon and his three assistants brought all of their equipment with them in suitcases. They came in with everything they needed except for the monitor and operating table.

After the surgery, we took a tuk-tuk to a Muslim restaurant called Karims in one of the big shopping complexes several kilometers away. I had a dish of mutton called Firdausi Qorma (aka Roghan Josh) that is a Mughlai recipe. We also had nan and Qeema (a minced mutton dish) and my friend ordered Boneless Butter Chicken, which was by far my favorite. We also had tandori chicken today from a vendor in the Sector 7 market which was even better. I’m slowly gaining courage to eat food not prepared here at the house (which is all vegetarian due to strict Hindi religious practices here). Of course, I only drink and brush my teeth with bottled water that I inspect upon purchase. I also only eat foods that are served very hot, are in sealed packages, or bananas. I do not eat raw fruits or vegetables, anything with water that hasn’t boiled, or anything served cold. I have already seen two patients with Typhoid Fever (but don’t worry, I have been vaccinated for it).