A year ago I spent a week in March in at a resort in the mountains north of Madrid volunteering at a language school for Spanish professionals who wanted to improve their English. My accommodations, meals and transportation to and from the resort were provided. All I had to do was speak English. A year later I tell my friends I would have paid to have the experience. It was just that memorable. Our group still chats regularly on WhatsApp to keep up with each other. This week one of them blogged about it, providing me a memory do-over . I thought you’d enjoy her account.
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.
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.
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.
I saw it on my morning Captiva Island beach walk. The two tracks formed a V shape from the water; evidence that a female loggerhead sea turtle had made her way to higher ground to lay her eggs (around 120 of them) during the night and returned to the sea before daylight.
In Florida from May 1st to October 31st it’s loggerhead turtle nesting time on 18 miles of Sanibel and Captiva Island Gulf beachfront. The islands’ optimum subtropical weather provides a perfect nursery. Beaches are regularly patrolled for signs of turtle nests and then marked off. Disturbing the nests results in a hefty fine.
After sixty days of incubation the hatchlings leave the nest making their way at night under a bright moon following the light to the water. Local ordinances encourage island residents to keep exterior lighting dimmed and pointed away from the beach to not disturb the hatchlings’ sense of direction. If they survive to adulthood, a loggerhead has an average lifespan of 50 years.
Huaorani EcoLodge lies deep within the Ecuadorian Amazon in Yasuni National Park. It’s owned and run by the Huaorani (also known as Waudani) people and its sustainability and cultural practices have won it a National Geographic World Legacy Award. The lodge was opened in August, 2007 in an effort to provide an income for the tribe, sustain and share their culture and protect the rain forest. It was a life changing experience to travel there with my son in 2010.
The only way in for visiting tourists is by boat along the Curaray and Napo Rivers or a small 4-seater plane that lands on a narrow grass landing strip in the isolated community of Quehueri’ono where you are taken by dugout canoe to the lodge. Either way you see both pristine rain forest and the wasteland wrought by global oil and timber companies – swaths of polluted land and rivers, the smell and noise of oil drills and hear the silence because the rain forest fauna have died off or left.
You need permission to visit as you are entering the protected reserve (the largest in Ecuador) of 4000 indigenous people who have been fighting the encroachment of modern life and ongoing destruction of their land.
Despite years of lobbying by Hauorani leader, Moi Enomenga, in front of Ecuadorian and international organizations; despite the Hauorani having been awarded legal title to Yasuni National Park and despite its status as a UN Biosphere Reserve, their land continues to be impacted by the environmental destruction of global oil and timber interests.
Today I learned that Huaorani EcoLodge has been forced to suspend operations because of nearby seismic exploration by a Chinese oil company. The Huaorani have asked to negotiate with Ecuadorian authorities to minimize the damage to the lodge and the business that provides income to the tribe. There has been no response and so they’re working with partners resorting to that most modern medium of appeal – a Change.org petition.
I was forever changed after leaving the Ecuadorian Amazon. I wonder every time I’m at a gas pump (which is far less these days) what was destroyed so that I might have the convenience of driving? I wonder how much longer the indigenous protectors of the rain forests worldwide can continue to be the front line in a battle to save themselves and an invaluable ecosystem? I wonder if I will be able to fulfill the vow I made when saying goodbye on that air landing strip of grass in Quehueri’ono- that I would return again to Huaorani EcoLodge?
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.
“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.