Sunday, March 23, 2014

Delhi to Rishikesh & wrap up

"I'm sittin' in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination... Mmm, mmm"

Actually, it's the 5th floor of Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, and this lounge is the only place I can pay for WiFi. I've got my ticket in hand to London and after 20 hours there, I'll be on a flight back to Los Angeles. Probably won't have a lot of time or access so I thought I'd write a little before I got home. 
3 days ago, I spent a furiously hot day in Delhi and after landing from Kolkata, I took a train to another train to the Yamuna Bank Metro Station, where I walked under the bridge and found Mr. Sharma and his school under the bridge. The kids remembered me and later I found out they've been asking about me. I played some more songs and sang for them and threw the frisbee around.  Nitish, a 23 year old college student and also teacher there said that many kids come to this school because it's the one safe place they can learn without being beaten. One kid said, he didn't mind being beaten, but he at least wanted to learn and at the regular schools, teachers often won't even show up to teach, and when they do, teach very little. So, with the help of some donors, I was able to make a large cash contribution to the school so the kids, all 97 of then, can have their own backpacks, and also t-shirts they can wear in the summer when the weather is hottest.  I think they were even gonna have a special logo printed on them of the school. I was going to get them school supplies but they had enough. They needed backpacks and clothes and I was happy to help. They have a plan to sprout more supplemental schools in other poor areas but it takes time and money. Maybe in the future.
The next day was a bumpy 7 hour drive on bad roads to Rishikesh.  I'm talking bad bad roads. Good thing we left at 5am otherwise I think we might still be on them! I arrived in Rishikesh with  full day ahead of me. I immediately wanted to see the Beatles ashram. It was interesting to see the run down place. Lots of Beatles graffiti everywhere and I kept hunting for locations based on old photos the Beatles might have been in. I think I found some. There were some great old egg looking domes on the rooftops and you climb a 25ft tall ladder and down into the top and there was a small chamber with the most crystal clear acoustics. I chanted out some Om's and it echoed and after a few you could've sworn I  was in there with a half dozen people. I can imagine this place in its day. I saw the sun set against the hills and over the Ganges and retired early. In the morning, I set out to find a man named Mooji. I didn't know who he was but a man from my small town in Hawaii that was in Rishikesh, told me to see him. Jamaican born and raised in London, Mooji is a guru of great reknown. I sat 4th row center on a flat pillow and he took questions from the over 400 people there. Questions about love, freedom, time, peace, etc. I couldn't sum up his words to do them justice but I found it highly illuminating and very entertaining.
Oops, just looking at the time, I have to rush to catch my plane. Consider this chapter 1 of the end.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Holi in Kolkata and More

The Holi Festival in simple terms is a celebration of good over evil. Depending on who you ask you'll get different answers of who is who because the history and meaning has evolved over time. For me, it was a hectic morning parade with live drumming, photographers galore, men spraying water from their rooftops, kids using squirt guns with bright liquid hues, and hundreds of people jammed tight in the streets spreading color all over each others faces and body. I came prepared with 5 bags of gulal, the name for the vegetable starch dye. Pink, purple, orange, green and yellow would be my color weapons of choice as I smeared it in hair, on faces and foreheads, around necks and even on backs. We walked along the tight corridors around Sudder St., throwing the dye on everyone. What I gave, I also received and each time the simple words "happy holi" went along with it. It was a lot of fun and good thing I pre-soaked my hair and face in coconut oil to absorb the color or otherwise I'd still be scrubbing it off! America does a version of this festival with a fun run attached. I'll withhold judgment on it until I experience that too but I doubt it comes close to the thrill of the real thing. 

My work at the Mother Teresa hospitals was very rewarding and instead of going into too much detail, I'll offer up some anecdotes.  For 4 days in the mornings, I went to Daya Dan, a home for physically and mentally handicapped children from about 4-16yrs or so. Starting in the laundry room, we washed everything by hand and then took it to the roof to hang out to dry.  After that we helped the kids with their classes. For older kids it was learning some English and basic math. But for the younger kids, we did physical therapy and light and sound therapy. Helping them use a walker, brace themselves, stand, hand coordination, that kind of stuff. One small child who was blind took a liking to me and would end up sleeping in my lap when we went into a dark room to listen to soft music while gentle lights flashed around a mirror ball. I'm not sure if he could see much of anything, but he seemed to enjoy the music and resting in my arms.  I was told that some of these kids were orphans and also abandoned by their families when they saw what issues they had. But here, the Sisters created a new family and thanks to the volunteers, an almost endless supply of laps to sleep in, hands to high five and people who can see the value and hope in every child. 
My time at Kali Ghat, the home for the destitute and the dying was also rewarding and I gotta say, I'm glad I took this ukulele with me. I got to play for the men and their faces lit up and a few danced and tried to sing or whistle along. I was also asked to play for the old women and one Sister told me that the patients got the most exercise in a long time when I played and they did a conga line around the bed strewn room. But, it wasn't all fun and games. I changed a lot of soiled pants, dressed many festering wounds, administered meds to reluctant men and even had food thrown at me from a grumpy Gus who just wanted to go home. But sadly, he had no home. I tried not to take any of it personal and put myself in their spot. It was humbling.
I'm back in Delhi now, I'll have updates soon on the school under the bridge I was helping out and also update you on my last two days here that I plan to spend in Rishikesh. White water rafting, yoga, swimming in the Ganges and enjoying the foothills of the Himalayas should be an ideal way to end this trip. Until then, take care.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Varanasi to Kolkata

My train from Varanasi to Kolkata was delayed by 8 hours and instead of leaving at 8pm, the Chambal Express departed just after 4am. To pass the time in the station, I struck up many conversations with people, including looking at an Indian wedding photo book from a photographer, being invited to Patna to stay with a college student, and making some side Rupees by selling glow stick bracelets I originally brought to give away but found that grown men will happily pay for them if given the chance. I sold them all out and had people follow me asking for more. I was never good at selling things, but around midnight, I turned into Ron Popeil (young kids, Google him). With my new found riches, about $3, but a lot in India, I was off to grab a nice cold lassi or two. After that, I still had four hours left and looking around, I walked up the ramp that leads from the concourse to the train platform and took out my ukulele. Originally just playing for myself in the corner of the ramp, I noticed some people lingered and stayed to listen. So, I did what any natural showman would do and turned around and belted out a few songs.  It was after the second song that I put down a few Rupees in change in front of me so people would know I was playing for money. People soon followed, dropping change and adding to the small pile. I should say, sometimes I sing with a lot of fervor and I guess the locals weren't used to that style. I soon had a crowd five deep on all sides, many with cellphones in hand pointed straight at me, recording bits of Radiohead, Willie Nelson, and Beirut.  It was my 6th or so song in when I noticed it was hard for people to get up the ramp because it was filled with people listening to me. A commotion was heard coming down the ramp and it was a police man. He cleared a path with his club and he yelled something at me and waved his club. I took that as my cue to exit and I picked up my meager earnings.  The rest of the time waiting was slow and exhausting but at 4am, I found my sleeper bunk and woke up in Kolkata.
I arrived at night and found a guest house near Sudder Street. In the morning while eating a masala dosa and finishing my third lassi, a young German backpacker walked into the restaurant and we struck up a conversation. He was 20 years old and on the 5th month of his 7 month trip around Asia and Europe.  At 3pm, I had my volunteer orientation at the Mother house on AJC Bose Road.  It was buzzing with young and old volunteers and people from all over: Japan, Spain, France, Korea, Italy, etc. I met Eric from Oregon, Victor from NYC, Christina from NYC, and Kiersten from Topanga Canyon. We all made fast friends and had a field day on our day off Thursday. Playing Frisbee in Maiden Park and watching a cricket game was a lot of fun. We all got along so well, you would've thought we'd known each other for years. 
The next day I went to mass at 6am with the girls.  Partly so I could walk with them that early on the streets and also curious to see where Mother Teresa went for mass. After that, we had a meager breakfast from the sisters that consisted of plain bread, bananas and chai tea. My first place of volunteering was Prem Dan, a home for the destitute and the dying. There were about 200 men and women there and they were separated. My jobs included bagging coconuts, serving water and lunch to the hundred or so men of all various ages and ranges of health, and cleaning up. I shook a lot of hands, danced and told one man I'd get him a rosary. Still looking for one! That lasted from 8-12:30, I came back to my guest house, cleaned my clothes in a bucket, set them out to dry and closed my eyes on my bed for 20minutes. Awaking, I took off for Kali Ghat, my next place of service and the original home started by Mother Teresa for the destitute and dying. This was different, 48 men, most of them in ill health and very old and close to the end. I shook hands at first but also massaged the ones sore from arthritis or age. Feeling their papery hands made me wonder what these men had gone through in their lives that lead them here. I'm not gonna lie, it was pretty emotional for me seeing them. I held one frail man against my chest for what seemed liked 10 minutes or more. It seemed he hadn't been hugged in years.  Massaging tough feet, bony legs, and helping another take pills was all part of the job. We served them dinner, cleaned up and I left feeling like I had done some good, even if it was soothing worn out hands. There's a reason you're not allowed to take pictures in the homes. Many are tough places to see and not all happy. But we try to make them so. I'll be here for 4 more days, many stay weeks or even months volunteering.  Maybe that'll be me someday. Okay, long one this time, thanks for reading and I'll detail the other volunteer places and my time at Holi festival for the next installment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Agra to Varanasi

The over night train from Agra to Varanasi went well.  I slept top bunk, three high and the fellow next to me was Osamu from Japan. It's funny, the conversations and quick relationships that happen while traveling. I spoke what Japanese I knew and we exchanged Facebook info and took photos together. I arrived in Varanasi very tired from lack of good sleep on the train.  Due to an overbooking at my hotel, I was taken to another and even better one right on the banks of the Ganges down by Ossi River. The hotel was booked with South Americans who follow Paramahansa Yogananda. The fellow whose autobiography I happen to be reading. I made friends with them and we traveled to a Shiva temple outside of town for a Pooja and I also joined them in Sarnath at deer Park. But the real reason I was here was to help out Bal Ashram. I played music and sang at the school and with the support of some special donors, was able to purchase new bedding and basic everyday supplies to the 25 orphans they serve. The bedding was much needed and now the kids won't have to share blankets, sheets and the like. Thank you to those who contributed! I'm off to Kolkata on another night train in a few hours. I'll be at the Mother Teresa hospitals for a good week. I'll keep you up to date on what I'll be doing there. I've heard so many stories but won't know until I get there. I enjoyed my stay in Varanasi. I think I'm getting the hang of India and I look forward to my time in the City of Joy, Kolkata.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Jaipur to Pushkar to Agra

Having not been able to get rail tickets because they sell out weeks in advance, my other option was to hire a driver to take me around. This has been a fortuitous turn of events as my driver, let's call him Jacob, has turned into a good friend on the road. He's taken me off the beaten path to introduce me to locals and other charities, and I've made monetary contributions to the textile company Vee Kay Enterprise that teaches blind children in Jaipur how to make handicrafts. Jacob is from Agra and so is his wife and family. I reckon he's in his late 50s to early 60s. He's invited me for tea to meet them all and also visit some more schools and places in need. I think it helps tremendously that I've brought my ukulele, as it's an instrument few have seen here and has let me inside more than a few places. I'm minutes away from leaving Pushkar and about to embark on the 400+km drive to Agra. It's 7am and when we've made good time, we'll stop for tea. I met a Dutch girl yesterday and we hiked the two mountains that cradle Pushkar and walked the bazaars together. Nice to have some company on the journey and she appreciated the male presence as a lone female traveler. So far I'm doing great, my next big volunteering venture will be in 3 days in Varanasi so stay tuned. After that it's a night train to Kolkata for a week or more in the Mother Theresa hospitals. Thanks for following me on this journey.