Sugarcane…

…After spending several hours with Manish at the hospital for his first visit, I was exhausted. We took a tuk-tuk back to the slum, from which I began to walk home. As I passed by the Carmel Convent School, the church’s driver, Ram Singh, was pulling out of the main gate with Sisters Asha and Sweta in the back seat. They stopped and summoned me to get in. I found out that we were going to look at land that other sisters had purchased in hopes of one day building a new school.

Thirty minutes later, we were in the rural villages and farms east of Faridabad. We passed two of the hospitals where I had worked in January as we continued east for another 30 minutes.

As the sun dropped low into the horizon, we finally arrived at our destination. Although I thought the location was a bit unusual for a school, it certainly made for scenic fields of wheat and potatoes.

I then discovered we were on a business trip. Multiple gentlemen came to sign contracts and discuss agriculture.


–The Carmel Convent School’s driver, Ram Singh–

Since I mentioned during the drive that I had never eaten sugarcane straight from the stalk, the sisters sent one of the farmers’ sons to chop us down some fresh sugarcane from a neighboring field. Much to my surprise, India is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane (after Brazil), the source of 80% of world sugar production.

Everyone gnawed with their molars to peel away the stiff bark. To everyone’s amusement, I pulled out a pocketknife from pocket number 6 to accomplish the same task in half the time with a tenth of the trouble. I was shocked at how much liquid sugar there actually was in the stalk. Needless to say, it was delicious.

Here I was, in the middle of a wheat field in rural India, eating a stalk of sugarcane with two Carmelite nuns and their business partners. An hour and a half earlier, I had been in an urban slum playing with kids who all know me by name. Two hours earlier, I had been with the chief radiologist of a large private hospital conducting an MRI on 18-month-old Manish to determine whether he has a proliferating hemangioma or venous malformation covering half of his face. Now that’s a full day!


–Villagers carrying crops and goods to town–

Advertisements

Our Shrinking Planet…

…Since leaving home 101 days ago, this site has reached more than 7,000 people in 41 countries across every continent except Antarctica. In just the last 30 days, readers have checked in from Pakistan, Brunei, Finland, Hong Kong, Syria, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Japan, Libya, the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Kuwait, Sweden, Malaysia, Australia, Russia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovakia, the United Arab Emirates, India, France, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, Poland, Costa Rica, South Africa, Austria, New Zealand, Yemen, the Philippines, Germany, the United States of America, Vietnam, Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Croatia.


–The origins of readers over the last 90 days–

I don’t know anyone in most of these countries. However, using only a laptop, pocket camera, and cellular network, I have been able to share my experiences, lessons, and feelings with ease and speed never before possible.

I am actually writing today’s post from Classroom 1B of the Carmel Convent School in Faridabad, India. In front of me, 16 students from an Indian slum study diligently under three Carmelite nuns and two teachers courtesy of eleven sponsors from five countries across three continents. Five weeks ago, all of this was just an idea!

We are living through the most astounding technological developments of all time. At our fingertips, we have tools that our ancestors could have only dreamed of. From a classroom in Northern India, I can use my laptop and a cellular network to instantly bring you here, whether you are in Scottsdale, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Cape Town, or Bandar Seri Begawan. What an exciting time to be alive!

Donate with WePay

Chief Holi Guest…

…The second day of school was just as magical as the first. The students could not be prouder. Neither could I. They are taking to school like ducks to water.


–The ending scene of our movie–


–Manisha hard at work on her Hindi–


–Pritesh (aka Golu) and Ajeet working on their handwriting–


–Komal (closest) and Anita (looking at us) with Sister Prasanna in back–


–Pooja and Sonu (aka Abishek) with multiple teachers and sisters to teach them–

Today, we took a break from class to use the playground. You can only imagine the excitement!

The kids’ favorite device is definitely the merry-go-round. Ok, it’s my favorite too. If you haven’t noticed, I’m really just a big kid at heart. You might also be wondering what is on my face.

Although I had been invited to a Holi (pronounced “holy”) party by our neighbor last week, I hadn’t given in much more thought. Only this morning did I find out I was the chief guest! To make a long story short, our neighbor, Meenakshi, owns and runs a women’s polytechnic institute here in Faridabad. A few weeks ago, the other volunteers and I were discussing sending some women from the slum to her school for vocational training. Meenakshi has become one of our biggest local supporters. Through me, she met my host mother and the two are rapidly becoming close friends.

I found out that I was the chief guest about 30 minutes before the event was about to start. I jumped in our family car and rode with Shri, Mumta, and Naisa to the polytechnic school. We were given an honorary Indian welcome. I received a fresh rose, a tilak on my forehead, and a plethora of traditional sweets and soda. We sat down on a couch facing about 50 female students. I received gracious praise for my work here and then was asked to make yet another impromptu speech. Luckily, I have a lot of things to talk about.

Next, we witnessed a full fashion show and a few excellent dancers. Then, as I had feared, I was asked to display my own dancing in front of everyone. By now, awkward moments and expectations no longer surprise me. I looked around to verify what was expected of me and happily gave the crowd what they wanted.

Much to everyone’s amusement, I pulled up many of the ladies to dance with me. One thing Indians love to do is dance. Dancing can seemingly break out whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason.

In traditional celebration, we “played Holi.” Playing Holi consists of placing colored powder (simply called ‘color’) on another person and having them color you back. The celebration ends up turning into a massive cloud of brightly colored talcom powder as everyone throws handfuls of color at one another. It’s a janitor’s worst nightmare.

Holi itself isn’t until Thursday, but Indians love to celebrate, even if it means having to jump the gun a little bit. After my dancing exhibition, we rushed back to the school to meet the students as they arrived. After recess, Sister Pushpa sent me home to shower before I could go back to class.

Donate with WePay

It’s Wedding Season…

…Loud music, dancing, and horses filled the street outside of our house all day. Tonight, another one of our neighbors, named Ambuj, wed his new wife, Abha, through an arranged marriage. Although the marriage venue was only about 35 miles away on the other side of New Delhi, it took us more than two hours to get there. We planned to leave at six, left at seven, and arrived at nine. We must have passed at least 20 other weddings on the way. Fireworks and bands filled the streets throughout Delhi. Luckily, we still arrived before the groom and his parade consisting of a full band, horse drawn carriage, and dozens of dancing relatives.

It was certainly a celebration! We could hear the band and procession coming from far away. Another wedding was taking place across the street as well as two more just down the block. When we were invited to the wedding last week, I was specifically requested to dance and wear the same outfit as in last month’s wedding. As soon as the groom’s family saw me, they whisked me into the dancing. The curly toes of my jooties were repetitively flattened by all of the stomping feet.

There were many similarities to the last wedding. We danced outside for at least 15 minutes before the groom and his men were stopped at the front of the venue by all of the bride’s female relatives. The groom received blessings, food, gifts, and new coatings to the tilak on his forehead.

The groom’s brothers and cousins wasted no time in getting the party started. The dancing continued directly to the dance floor while the procession continued.

After some time, we all joined in the dancing. The other volunteers had befriended this lady in previous events on previous days. She is the wife of one of the groom’s relatives. Every time I have seen her, she has been wearing extraordinarily gorgeous sarees and jewelry.

After about 30 minutes, the party music suddenly gave way to slow spiritual-sounding music. The bride emerged from the small room she had been hiding in. Decorated with 30 pounds of jewels and garments, the bride was slowly escorted to the stage by her immediate family.

Once on the stage, the austerity of the event gave way to jovial celebration. Unexpectedly, the bride and groom were lifted up by their respective families while they adorned each other in massive garlands. Everyone was laughing and cheering at the fun-loving change of pace.

To be a part of events like this is very special. I was thrilled just to be able to attend one wedding. Now I have been to two and have been invited to yet another! However, the wedding to come is of one of our 16-year-old female students in the slum. That will be quite the sight to see!

Mussoorie…

…After another installment of banana-chocolate crepes in Rishikesh, we set off for the Himalayan mountaintop town of Mussoorie at an elevation of 6,170 ft. The drive was a hair-raising, nausea-inducing, and knuckle-whitening adventure through tight switchbacks at high speeds with no guard rails.


–Hard-boiled eggs for sale on the side of the road in Mussoorie–

The name of this state is Uttarakhand, which happens to be having its major local and state government elections on Monday. Every few miles, we passed another procession of fanatical supporters waving flags on the backs of motorcycles. The parties have the most odd names and icons. This party, for instance, looks to be the “Ceiling Fan” party. I guess donkeys and elephants really don’t make much sense either though. The politicians and their advocates drive around with huge loudspeakers on their cars to campaign. All I can think about every time is the Blues Brothers.

With clouds and fog filling the valleys, the temperature at 6,000 ft was unexpectedly frigid. We played another game of “find a decent hotel.” None of them were heated. With temperatures reaching the mid 30’s at night, we each rented small heaters for Rs 200 ($4). I have been wearing everything I brought, including long johns, wool socks, two jackets, a ski hat, and fleece gloves I bought on the street. Mussoorie is a popular honeymoon and holiday destination for all Indians, especially in the summer when temperatures are more comfortable than in the plains below. It’s definitely the off season for a reason now. However, we had a great time walking the famous markets and exploring what Indian tourism feels like.


–A human-powered Ferris wheel–


–An eye-injury waiting to happen–


–A restaurant kitchen that I’m guessing would not pass any health inspection–

We walked the markets some more and had a delicious meal of pad thai, which I had conveniently been craving, for dinner at a Tibetan restaurant. We also observed another wedding procession on the way.

After a frigid night (our little rented heaters had no chance of competing with the cold marble floors and walls) I wiggled my sleeping bag over to the window to see this:

I challenge you to find a room that costs $12 per night with a better view than this (please note the snow-capped Himalayas in the background, beyond which is China). We then climbed up to the top of Gun Hill (400 ft higher) to have a better view.

I had one of my favorite South Indian dishes for breakfast, called uttapam:

Then, we visited Kempti Falls, another popular summertime destination. Unfortunately, it was down at the bottom of the next valley to the North. We had to drive down, then back up to Mussoorie, then down again into the plains on our way home. Signs reading “Speed Thrills But Kills” and other cheesy but true reminders lined the roadways in bright orange. However, the signs need to be in Hindi too. Although they were definitely touristy, we all enjoyed the waterfalls. I haven’t posted any pictures of my host family yet. Here are just a couple.

Rishikesh…

…We arrived in Rishikesh well after sunset last night. After shopping for numerous hotels that were either too dingy or too expensive, I made some calls to places in the Lonely Planet. The hotel with availability was across the Ganges on the east bank of the river, which is inaccessible by car. We left the car and driver and crossed the Ram Jhula, one of the two well-known suspension bridges that span the wide river here in Rishikesh. The constant din of India slowly faded behind us as we traversed the dark water on the bridge, which swayed and flexed more than it looked like it should. We then entered an entirely different atmosphere from the other bank. Meditative chants filled the air with sounds of the Ganges splashing on the bank. It was so peaceful that it didn’t even feel like India. I made two hour-long trips back and forth and was mesmerized by the silence and serenity for the entire two hours.

Some photos of the Ganges and Ram Jhula taken this evening to give you an idea:

This morning, I made some calls home from the bank of the river and ate a banana-chocolate crepe from the hotel that was phenomenal. We then set out to explore what we knew was going to be a beautiful town.

Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world and quite famous for meditations as well. I could immediately tell that there isn’t a typical Indian demographic here. In fact, I think this is one of the most eclectic places I have ever been. It’s like being in Woodstock, Venice, and Hawaii all at once. It also has, unequivocally, the highest concentration of foreigners that I have seen in India other than inside the Taj Mahal grounds. There are people here who look like they have lost everything but found what they need next to people who look like they have everything but can’t find what they’re looking for. There are religious zealots, yogis with more experience than most life expectancies, mid-life crisis sufferers, and hippies my age who look like they just got off a 20-hour Kombi bus ride with everything they own.

We spent much of the day strolling, trekking, and absorbing the spectacular vistas, calming mantras, and billowing incense of this unique and mystical place.


–Our dinner plate. This assortment of dishes is called “Thali”–

Bathing in the Ganges…

…This weekend is a special adventure. My host family has decided to join us in our journey north to Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Mussoorie.

Traveling is a great luxury for the vast majority of Indians. Even most of the doctors we have met have only traveled to a few select places within 500 km, with the exceptions of Mumbai and Goa. Although most of the younger generations wish to travel to Europe and the United States, most of the adults have never been outside of India and have no desire to do so.

My host-family, especially my host-mother, is incredibly excited to travel with us this weekend. Usually, “India Time” means that we leave 30 minutes to an hour after we intend to. Today, however, my host-mother was knocking on our door four minutes ahead of the 5:30am scheduled wake-up time. We four volunteers, two kids, two parents, and driver Ashok set out soon thereafter in a seven-passenger SUV called a Mahindra Xylo.

Today is Republic Day, which commemorates the implementation of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950 (in case you were wondering, India gained its independence from British rule on August 15, 1947). Spirited parades lined the roads of almost every town we passed through. We were all very amused that we had the chance to stop at McDonald’s for a mid-morning breakfast of Veggie or Egg McMuffins. It was only my second egg in two months and it tasted delicious!

After five hours of driving past crops scattered with towering brick ovens and through small villages filled with festive and proud locals, the plains came to a gradual end as we entered the foothills of the Himalayas in Haridwar (in the state of Uttarakhand).

Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places for Hindus and the location where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas on its 2,525 km trip to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It is said that drops of Amrit, a potion for immortality, were dropped here accidentally by a mythical bird-like God called Garuda. As a result, millions of pilgrims flock to Haridwar every year to bathe in the river, thereby absolving their sins and attaining freedom from the endless suffering caused by the repeated cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.

My host-parents told me that a trip to Haridwar would not be complete without a proper bath. We checked our shoes and entered Har ki Pauri, the holiest ghat (stairs along the river) where the drops of Amrit are believed to have fallen.

After some slight hesitation and investigation of the water quality, I stripped down to my boxers and walked down to the lower steps. My blinding paleness gathered the attention of many, but I tried not to notice as I made the most of this unique and spiritual moment in life. The water was chilly but the sense of community and humanity at the ghat greatly overpowered any discomfort. As I leaned into the swift current, lifted my head out of the Ganges, and looked out over hundreds of worshipers into the Himalayas, I said a prayer that I will always remember.

Beautiful flower boats with candles are set off into the river by many of the worshipers.

We ate lunch at a famous little street food vendor that also had tables. I had my first sweet lassi, a yogurt-based drink that is, as I found out, the perfect accompaniment to a spicy meal.

Next, we took a gondola ride to the Manasa Devi Temple on top of the mountain overlooking Haridwar.

Then, back down we went. Walking with the kids, ladies, and our host-mother through the market was like trying to paddle a canoe through a lake of molasses. However, there is no better place to get held up than India because there is always something new to look at and think about.


–Tikka powder for making tilaks or tikas on one’s forehead–

We then visited some popular modern Hindu temples with our host-family. They tried to explain the relationships of each of the Gods. However, to be honest, I am still finding it a very difficult religion to understand. The sheer number, requirements, and rolls of each God are astonishing. Unlike some other religions that forbid the worship of idols, Hindus place enormous effort into idolization.

As we drove out of town toward Rishikesh, the sun back-lit an enormous statue of Shiva, the destroyer God, with the Manasa Devi Temple in the background.

Monkey Temple…

…Just a few kilometers east of the central walled city of Jaipur is the Galta Gorge. Although not as well publicized or known to tourists, it was one of the most interesting sights I have experienced in India. We had been told that we should visit the Monkey Temple by my host-father and showed up not knowing what to expect, except a lot of monkeys. However, we knew we were in the right place as soon as we got out of the car. The narrow valley is home to over 5,000 monkeys, hundreds of goats, and dozens of cattle. I found that clapping loudly and making scary noises kept the troublesome monkeys from attacking.


–A monkey looking out over Jaipur (you can see a couple of kites flying in the distance)–

We walked to the temple on top of the peak overlooking all of Jaipur. The views were amazing but we were all a bit underwhelmed. I had a hunch we were in the wrong place. I had noticed pictures of sacred tanks in my guidebook, so we enlisted the help of some eager locals to show us the way to them. After a kilometer of switchbacks through steep terrain, we found the spectacular set of temples and sacred baths that we were looking for.

I felt like I was living in a National Geographic Magazine. Here I was watching the pilgrims wash away their sins in curative holy water while monkeys ate bananas and picked flies off of one another in front of an 18th century mountain temple where worshipers prayed to an elephant deity named Ganesha.

Amber Fort…

…Our next stop was one of the most beautiful forts in the state of Rajasthan, if not all of India, called Amber Fort (known locally as Amer Fort). The city of Amer gained prominence as the capital of the Kachhwaha Rajputs, a formidable clan of the ruling warrior class, from 1037 AD to 1727 AD, after which Maharaja Jai Singh II (the man who built Jantar Mantar) moved the capital 11 km southwest to Jaipur.

The Kachhwaha clan used marriage as a form of diplomacy, which they seem to have handled very well. Noticing the rise in wealth and power of the Mughal Emperors in Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikiri, the Kachhwahas ensured strong ties with the Mughals through marriage and military support. War booty contributed to massive wealth for the local Maharajas (kings). Maharaja Man Singh, the Rajput (warrior ruling class) commander of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s army (remember him from Fatehpur Sikiri and Agra Fort), began construction of Amber Fort in 1592.

Because the Kachhwahas were strictly Hindu and the Mughals strictly Muslim, the resulting architecture of Amber Fort is a unique blend of both architectural styles.


–A corner of the courtyard surrounded by the 12 queens’ chambers–

The Maharaja here would have 12 queens and many mistresses. Each queen lived in a separate room around the courtyard shown above. Secret passages in the walls behind allowed the Maharaja to travel freely throughout the palace and into each of the queens’ chambers in secrecy. Carvings of Kama Sutra still adorn the molding in some of the queens’ chambers. Although the Maharaja likely had dozens of children, only his first son was attributed to him.


–Jaigarh Fort standing watch over Amer–

I believe no invading force ever entered Amer to challenge the Kachhwahas, which was probably a good decision. The town of Amer is surrounded on most sides by steep, rocky mountains. A massive wall that resembles the Great Wall of China runs up and down the ridges of the mountains and is easily visible from miles away. The Amber Fort is halfway up one of the highest mountains and is directly downhill from Jaigarh Fort. Jaigarh serves as a massive citadel that overlooks and protects the entire town, wall complex, and Amber Fort below.


–View into the valley from Jaigarh Fort–


–Amber Fort viewed from a protective tower in Jaigarh Fort–


–Jai Van Cannon–

Situated on the highest point in Jaigarh Fort is Jai Van, the largest cannon on wheels in the world. Weighing in at 50 tons and with a barrel length of just more than 20 ft, Jai Van could use 220 lbs of gun powder to launch a massive cannonball over 22 miles. Impressive distance, but I am skeptical of the accuracy. Four elephants were required to move it into firing position.

The Maharajas used elephants to move up and down the steep paths as well as power to move supplies and military equipment. Elephants are still the luxurious way to enter the fort. However, each elephant is only allowed five trips up to the fort each day before it is taken home, fed, and given rest. The elephants are also rested in the middle of the day when the sun is highest in the sky. Although we did not get the chance to ride to the top, our tour guide took us to one of the ‘stables,’ for lack of a better word, where we were able to play with the elephants.

Their skin is tough and hair like cactus needles, albeit not as sharp or hard. Their eyes can almost talk. This elephant was eating as I stood under his trunk, which contributed to my laughter. Standing so close to a chewing mouth that looked like it could take my head off in one bite felt a bit strange.

We also did some shopping in Amer at a huge fixed-price store that I actually enjoyed shopping at. In preparation for the wedding this weekend, I bought this hand-embroidered kurta pajama, silk scarf, and pair of camel-skin jooties with the curly pointed toes straight out of Aladdin.

Jantar Mantar…

…As an enthusiast of astronomy, navigation, physics, and architecture (among many others), I had been eagerly awaiting a visit to Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Literally translated as ‘calculation instrument,’ Jantar Mantar was built by Maharaja (King) Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734 to improve scientific understanding of celestial bodies and provide more exact astrological predictions. He built five such complexes throughout Northern India but the one in Jaipur is the most impressive and best preserved.

There are 16 different sets of large instruments here that each serve different purposes or provide different methods of taking the same measurements. Walking through Jantar Mantar is like walking through a sculpture park that also happens to be one of the most incredible science projects on Earth.


–Laghu Samrat Yantra–

Located at 27 degrees North latitude, each of the instruments (except for the instruments dedicated to specific zodiac signs) is inclined at an angle of 27 degrees from level and points directly toward true north. Therefore, if you looked up any of these instruments from the base of the inclination, you would see Polaris (the North Star) seemingly resting on the top of the device.


–Where time is measured on the Laghu Samrat Yantra–

The Laghu Samrat Yantra is essentially a large sundial that is capable of determining local time within a margin of error of 20 seconds. When we visited, the local time’s deviation from India Standard Time was 33 min back. In other words, when the sun was directly overhead in Jaipur and the devices that point to true north cast no discernible shadow to the east or west, a watch would read 12:33 pm India Standard Time.


–Samat Yantra–

Unsatisfied with an accuracy of 20 seconds, Jai Singh II had the Samat Yantra (“The Supreme Instrument”) constructed. At 27 m (90 ft) tall, it is the largest sundial in the world and is capable of measuring local time to within 2 seconds. The shadow from the Samat Yantra moves at a speed of 1mm per second (6 cm per min) along what is essentially a massive ruler shaped into a half ring and tilted at the same 27 degree angle.

Other devices are used to track stars and constellations, determine the declinations of celestial bodies, and predict events or horoscopes.


–Three of the instruments in the Rashivalaya Yantra–

The Rashivalaya Yantra is comprised of 12 different devices each at a different angle and orientation. Each of the 12 devices is specifically used to make measurements for one zodiac sign, such as Sagittarius or Taurus, and is oriented and inclined at the appropriate angle for its respective constellation. In combination with other instruments, astrologers could make highly specific (they call it ‘accurate’) horoscopes using these devices.


–Ram Yantra–

The Ram Yantra is an instrument comprised of two cylindrical devices made up of thin wedges that complement each other. The instrument would normally be one large cylinder, but then no one could enter the device to make accurate readings. Thus, the cylinder is cut into wedges and adjoining wedges are separated so that people can walk between every other wedge. The missing wedges are then built into a separate, complementary cylinder just beside the first. Thus, only one of the instruments works at a time. About every 15 minutes or so, the center post’s shadow will move off of the measurable surface into one of the spaces where a wedge is missing. Then, the astronomer would have to go to the other cylinder where the center post’s shadow had just entered the measurable surface area. It’s quite hard to explain, but maybe you can figure it out looking at the photos.


–Jai Prakash Yantra–

The Jai Prakash Yantra is another device comprised of two complementary hemispheres. If overlaid with one another, the two fractional hemispheres would make one solid hemisphere without any gaps. On the hemispheres is a map of the heavens. It is used to determine the accuracy of other instruments in the complex and determine which zodiac device to use.


–Narivalaya Yantra–

The Narivalaya Yantra is comprised of two circles placed at an angle of 27 degrees toward the ecliptic. It is used to calculate time and follow the solar cycle.