India: Monsoon Floods and Dengue Fever

It was only two months ago that I blogged about how the impoverished families involved in our humanitarian project in India were suffering from heat and drought. Fields had dried up. Drinking water was being brought in by the government. And family members were suffering from medical conditions brought on by living in tiny windowless concrete rooms that function like an oven in those conditions. It particularly impacted the town of Khajuraho and our families there from the farming caste – next to the lowest in India’s still functioning caste system. The India Group project paid for medical care, bottled water and rent for one of our displaced families in addition to our other regular education and health funding work.

Then the monsoon season arrived and excessive rainfall over the past week has caused the Ganges River and its tributaries to flood impacting our families who live in Varanasi. The families we support there are from the boatmen caste whose entire livelihood depends on the Ganges river.

India flooding

Today’s edition of The International Business Times reports:

Officials said at least 17 people have died in Madhya Pradesh, 14 in Bihar and nine in Uttar Pradesh over the weekend because of drowning, electrocution or injuries from collapsed houses. The Ganges flooded many residential areas of the city of Allahabad, forcing people to move to safer areas. About 12,000 people were evacuated from low-lying surrounding villages, a government statement said.

In the Hindu holy town of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, flooding forced a halt to cremations at a main riverfront area. Devout Hindus bring dead family members to Varanasi in the belief that being cremated there frees their soul from the cycle of death and rebirth. In Bihar, 600,000 people were evacuated and the army and air force are on standby because more rain is forecast, said a disaster management official.


When I was in Varansi in February I joined a morning community yoga session at sunrise every day from this location now covered by Ganges flooding.

In Delhi where we also support a group of families, dengue fever has broken out in the slum where they live and several children and adults in our families have been hospitalized in the nearby Catholic hospital that works with our project providing medical care. Dengue fever is a mosquito transmitted disease and the standing water in the slums as well as humidity in Delhi make for prime breeding conditions for mosquito species who spread the disease.

It sometimes feels like nature is working against our families. As the experts have been predicting, it’s the most impoverished countries that will bear the brunt of climate change and within those countries the most impoverished of their citizens will be most susceptible.

If you wish to help, you can donate online at The India Group.

India: Waiting For The Train With A Cow

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This is a train station in India. Yes, that’s a cow in the foreground snoozing among sleeping passengers. My fellow board members from The India Project (I’ve posted about my work with them here, here and here) have been in the country over the past few weeks checking up on the families we support. Has the drought subsided? Mostly, but in Khajuraho where many of the families live the crops were destroyed and they have no other means of support. How are they coping medically? There were a variety of heat related medical issues and without our medical support families would have gone untreated. Are all the children back attending school after the holiday break? Yes. And with luck our first student will graduate from high school this year.

We back here in the states have been making decisions as updates have been coming in – authorizing rent for a family who was evicted from their home, medical coverage for one new baby and another on the way and struggling with ideas to help the adults become self-sufficient wage earners in an economy that discriminates against their caste and has little work for anyone who is illiterate.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our project and donating to our work, the link is here.

The in-India team sent this photo of their transportation around the country. India’s train system is almost entirely government owned. It’s the third largest rail system in the world serving 7500 stations. On any given day 20 million people are traveling by train; most of them in the class called General Compartment. There’s no air conditioning in those cars. Wooden benches. And they pack passengers in forcing them to sit in aisles and luggage racks if the benches are full. I suspect the cow isn’t traveling anywhere; the train station was just a good place to people watch.


India: Dying In The Heat & Pollution

I’m worried. It’s nearly 124 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of India, the highest temperature ever recorded. There’s a drought across much of the country. New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world according to the organizations tracking global air quality. Indians are dying from heat related illnesses and toxic air. These facts would normally become part of the gestalt of international environmental and humanitarian crisis media reports that seem so overwhelming it’s hard to know how an individual person can help. But it’s hard to ignore India these days. I sit on the board of a humanitarian project called The India Group who works with low caste families to provide medical care and education for their children. I was there the month of February. It’s not just a country but it’s individual children and families I know who are suffering.


I know in Khujaraho where she lives, the wells have dried up and drinking water comes in government trucks. Families line up with containers to get water. It’s so hot inside the small 6 x 6 concrete room her family calls home that family members get heat boils on their skin. And because she and the rest of her family are from the farming caste, their only source of income has withered and died in the heat. More than 400 farmers across India have committed suicide out of desperation since January.

I know the overcrowded New Delhi slum where they live is not only sweltering, but the air quality levels caused by heat and dust are severe and the accompanying toxic ozone gas levels are causing permanent lung damage in some people. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable.


It’s hard to fathom what conditions must be like in this Kolkata slum that sits on the city railroad tracks. On a good day conditions are miserable. It’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit there today. To deal with the crisis schools shut down in April until further notice.


I wonder how my Kolkata friend Roju is surviving. Is it even physically possible to hand pull a rickshaw on the Kolkata streets barefoot in blistering temperatures?

Two nights ago the Seattle local and national news featured distraught downtown Seattle workers who had been inconvenienced when a faulty mechanism shut down electricity to parts of the city for an hour on a day when the outside temperature was a comfortable 65 degrees. In India people died that day from the heat and toxic air. That crisis wasn’t covered by the media. In Seattle the espresso machines were silenced for an hour. That’s the “crisis” the media chose to cover.


India: Waking and Putting the Ganga to Sleep

“It is not an easy city to comprehend for those of us who stand outside the Hindu tradition. As we survey the riverfront at dawn, we are challenged to comprehend the whole of India in one sweeping glance.” Diana Eck, Banaras, City of Light


Every morning I could hear the soft chanting from my hotel room at Assi Ghat (a ghat is literally a stairway down to the river; there are thirty in Varanasi). It was my alarm clock; the signal to put on my clothes and, in the dark of early morning, walk past the wandering bulls and waking streetside vendors to the Ganges River to join in the waking of Ganga, the Hindu river goddess. It became my daily ritual; my way of making sense of Varanasi, an ancient city that many say is the oldest  in the world. Carbon dating of artifacts dates it back to at least the 9th century BC.


The ceremony to wake Ganga up begins before dawn. Seven designated Hindu priests line the river bank on a platform and perform a ritual of Sanskrit mantras using drums, cymbals and elaborate cobra shaped camphor lamps. As they call out to Ganga, the sun begins to rise over the river and another day begins in Varanasi.


Immediately after the ceremony there’s a free community yoga session. Locals quickly fill up the chairs and floor surrounding the stage with women seated seperately from men. On my first day I wondered if I could participate since I could see no obvious tourists but the friendly women in the women’s section, noticing my hesitation, smiled and patted a space indicating that I should join them. Each day I sat with them as they demonstrated the yoga breathing exercises for me and checked on my progress.


My final morning turned out to be Varanasi International Tourism Day. When I showed up for the waking of Ganga, I was escorted to the VIP chairs, given a necklace of marigolds and my photo was taken with my yoga companions and local officials by the media.

I found Varanasi the most difficult place to comprehend during my month of travelling around India. It was bigger than I’d anticipated; most of the city spreads back from the river. The poverty seemed more bleak and the sky had a constant brownish hue from pollution. The Varanasi City Guide I bought while there said, “Outwardly its just an old city, crowded, chaotic and rather dirty. The ancient buildings seem on the verge of collapse; the traffic is a maddening din of cars, buses and rickshaws; there is squalor and poverty on the streets and beggars crowd the door of every temple. Death is a constant palpable presence in this city. The vivid fires of the cremation ghats burn by the riverside, bodies are constantly carried through the streets, the hospices for the dying echo to the chants of mantras.”


In the Hindu tradition, bathing in and drinking from the Ganges River is a sacred practice. Having your ashes spread in the Ganges guarantees that your soul will go to heaven. The river is the focal point for Varanasi and so I tried to not let the city overwhelm me and tried to comprehend it in some small way from the river.


Every evening at sunset, Ganga is put to sleep in a much more elaborate ceremony than the waking ceremony. Called Aarti, this one takes place at Dasashwamedh Ghat. While the ceremony can be viewed on the ghat, many people hire a boatman to take them to view the expanse of the ceremony from the river. The crush of boats allows vendors to walk from boat to boat selling food and souvenirs.


There were three sets of seven priests spread along the ghat and as with the waking ceremony, putting Ganga to sleep involved drums, cymbals, Sanskrit chants and elaborate camphor lamps called aarti lamps that were raised high in choreographed movements by the priests and then arched back into the water.

The timing of both ceremonies depends on the season as they coincide with sunrise and sunset. I attended the waking ceremony and yoga session daily. Somehow the routine of that was both meditative and became familiar and l was able to contend with the chaos of Varanasi easier. It also helped me understand how the Hindu tradition thinks of the river as a living goddess where waking her, bathing and drinking her, dying by her, putting your ashes in her and putting her to sleep each night are all central to the religion.

Kolkata: Remnants of the British Raj at the Fairlawn Hotel

Arriving in a new city after dark always gives a surreal first impression that usually rights itself the next morning. When our taxi from the airport turned right onto Kolkata’s notorious Sudder Street, the narrow, pot holed road was ablaze with neon lights and crawling with international backpackers. It is lined with dark alleyways that house what guidebooks warn is the worst of Asia’s cheap accommodations: no running water, squat hole toilets, cockroaches and rats. I was relieved when the taxi pulled into a courtyard and the old two story structure inside glowed a brilliant nile green color under Christmas lights hung everywhere. Cartons of empty Kingfisher beer bottles stood next to wicker furniture,  and potted palms. In the crowded “beer garden” just off the lobby came the voices of Brits, Kiwis and Aussies. The Fairlawn Hotel‘s first impression never changed; it enlarged.


The building was constructed in 1781 on land bought by an Englishman from Sheik Ramjam and Bonay. It passed through several British owners before being purchased by British military commander, E.F. Smith and his Armenian wife, Violet in the early 1900s for use as a guesthouse and their private residence. Violet passed away two years ago but her personality and influence are everywhere in the Fairlawn. Guests, many who are regulars, still talk about her evening descent down the staircase in pearls, full make-up and a red haired wig for a nightly gin and tonic with guests.


The stairway to the second floor rooms is lined with family photos, portraits of British royalty and framed newspaper clippings about the Fairlawn and its famous guests. Multiple times a day staff polish the banisters to remove fingerprints.


The upstairs sitting room is a combination museum of English history in India and photograph album of Smith family vacation snapshots.

At breakfast the first morning I asked for a cup of milk tea, the traditional Indian drink we’d been served everywhere at all times of the day: sugar with tea and milk. The waiter looked appalled (the Fairlawn is a proper British establishment) and returned with a silver tray holding a bone china teacup and saucer, sugar bowl, silver creamer and a silver teapot covered with a tea cozy. Also the breakfast menu’s two choices: a proper English breakfast or porridge and toast with marmalade. No lassi. No pickled vegetables. No rice and curry sauce. Clearly inside the Fairlawn I was no longer in India’s India.


Outside the courtyard of the Fairlawn and the window of my room, the poverty  of Kolkata was very real. Desperate locals and immigrants from surrounding regions live on the streets hoping to eke out some kind of basic existence from the backpacker crowd. You can buy anything on Sudder Street. Anything.

Inside the Fairlawn each day brought a new group of tourists. Some were researching English family roots of grandparents and uncles who had lived in Kolkata when it served as the capitol of the British Empire in India. Others were Fairlawn regulars who found Kolkata to be more interesting than India’s other cities. And some were there as I was to volunteer at one of Mother Theresa’s charity homes for the sick, disabled and dying. The Fairlawn staff have worked at the hotel through its generations of owners passing jobs down from father to son. They know the regular guests well. Which beer they prefer – Kingfisher regular or strong; at what time they like their afternoon tea; if they like the lobby air fan off or on while reading their morning India Times.


Crossing the courtyard threshold of the Fairlawn as I did multiple times daily became an exercise in attitude adjustment. Outside was the Mother Theresa home for disabled children where I volunteered, the hand push rickshaw drivers who labor hard to earn $1 USD per day and the extraordinary poverty of Kolkata. It’s both shocking and sad. Inside the ghost of Violet Smith still presides over polished banisters, proper tea and an evening gin and tonic.

India: The Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata


“Didi, I am not ashamed to be a wallah. You should not be ashamed to ride in my rickshaw.” I stared at the man who had introduced himself as Roju. He was thin and barefoot. I am a tall, white woman perfectly capable of walking. The idea of being pulled through the streets in his hand rickshaw felt too colonial, too awful, too politically incorrect.


Viewed as an oppressive legacy of the British Raj era of India’s history, hand rickshaws were banned by the Indian government in 2006. The wallahs in Kolkata banned together in a union called the All Bengal Rickshaw Union conducting protests and strikes to preserve the only form of work many of them felt they could do. Kolkata is the only place in the country where hand rickshaws are allowed to operate, but no licenses for new drivers have been issued since 2006 effectively phasing out the profession.


Its incredibly hard work that makes very little money for the drivers as motorized tuk tuks and pedi-cabs have taken their place. Even in the busy tourist area of Sudder Street, rickshaw drivers only earn about 120 rupees a day (the equivalent of about $2.00 USD). Most of them rent their rickshaw for 60 rupees a day so they net $1.00 USD daily to support themselves and their families. Many of them left their families in impoverished villages and sleep in the streets of Kolkata in order to send money home. Roju wanted only 50 rupees (less than a dollar) for transporting me. I’d been regularly seeing well fed tourists negotiating with pullers to take them on the same route for half that amount and then piling two of them into the rickshaw.

I relented. How could I deny Roju an income? I insisted on paying far more than he wanted to take me to work each morning during my week of volunteering in Kolkata. Gradually I learned to be less terrified as he darted through the crush of traffic madly ringing the wallah tool of the trade, a small finger bell. How anyone could hear the bell tinkling over the incessant honking of car horns was a puzzle.


On my last day Roju insisted on a tour of the warren of tiny markets in central Kolkata. We passed through the meat butchering market, the art market and the fruit and vegetable market on roads so narrow I could touch the severed goat heads. He stopped to treat me to tea with his fellow wallahs. All of them said they’d never done any other kind of work. They’re afraid of losing the only source of income they have if the government continues to discourage the profession. They also serve as the only mode of transporation the people living in India’s slums can afford.


At the end of our tour, Roju presented me with his hand bell for riding with him each day. I had learned to not be ashamed of how it all looked and to keep my eyes open during those insanely chaotic intersection crossings. He had steady work for the week paid at far more than the going rate and served as tour guide to a world I would have missed. And more importantly we had each made a friend.

India: A Month of Humanitarian Work


The final week of my month of humanitarian work with The India Group in India is coming to an end. I’ve found it difficult to write about an experience and place so dramatically different than my other travels. Just when I think I have something profound to say – a conclusion I’ve reached, a reaction to an experience, a sight to describe – I’m confronted by an event that causes me to rethink it. The poverty in India is extreme and our project works directly with impoverished families from the lower castes in three different cities: Delhi, Varanasi and Khujuraho. I thought I’d seen the worst conditions in our work there, but this week we’re in Kolkata where the living situation in its slums is so bad I’ve been forced to hit the reset button on my understanding about everything. Its going to take some time to process and so I’m going to stick with a topic where I’m more grounded thats been the focus of my work here – education.


The India Group’s mission is to provide  education for all of the children and healthcare for everyone in 11 large families in three cities: Delhi, Varanasi and Khajuraho. In order to be supported by the project the parents (in particular the fathers) must commit to educating all of their children including their daughters through the 12th grade. None of the parents attended school beyond grade 4 and most never attended at all which means they need to take a leap of faith and envision a future for their children that defies their own experience. Because they never went to school, what happens there is a mystery to them. They also need to be willing to defy cultural and economic norms which encourage them to not educate their daughters; instead marrying them at a young age, a practice still common in lower caste impoverished families.


We spent a lot of time in schools while here, checking in with the teachers of our students seeing how they were doing. India’s public school system is dramatically underfunded with class sizes of over 50 in many so the project pays for private school tuition, books, uniforms and transportation along with a tutor for every child. Additionally we began to consider what the next steps might be for the oldest student in the program who will be graduating next year and for the teenage daughters who have never attended school but need to learn a marketable skill that doesn’t require reading or math skills since adult literacy programs are non-existent where they live.

My final week in India is being spent as a volunteer in a Mother Teresa home for children with cerebral palsy. India has a much higher rate of the disease than the worldwide average because of poor maternal nutrition and the incidence of diseases like meningitis after birth. The children living in the home have mostly been abandoned by families unable to care for them. It was surprising to see so many international volunteers who spend a week as I am or much longer. Many return annually. And I’ve been glad to see an educational program of sorts for the children living there.


India is a predominately Hindu country and Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, the arts and education. An image of her presides in many of the schools we visited and her festival occured while I was in Varanasi. Its a raucous affair involving students parading Saraswati statues through the streets with firecrackers to celebrate knowledge and learning. Each neighborhood built its own Sawaswati statue so we saw her riding in the backs of pickup trucks, on top of tuk tuks and in the middle of the most desperate of living conditions.