Monday, March 14, 2011

March 2011: Jaisalmer to Jaipur by train

After farewells to Chundun, we set off to see the last sights of Jaisalmer, meanwhile, our luggage will travel ahead of us to Jaipur. The city is compact, many shops crammed amidst old havelis looking down to narrow streets that used to be filled with horses, camels and carts centuries ago. Not very much has changed, except many more people and vehicles. Our guide had to show us his shop, interestingly beside a shop that sells textiles. While the rest of the group sat down for a presentation of fabrics I took some time to sit on the side of the street and watch people visit, buy vegetables, embroider sequins on beautiful sari material and have morning chai. The shop owner brought out a cup for me.

We wandered more streets and visited the fort, very much like the fort in Jodphur, just smaller. After lunch on a rooftop restaurant, Marcia posed with a distant view of the city behind her. Notice the pashmina - so light and warm, and fashionable of course :) You can see the tiny carved viewing vents in an old wealthy gem dealer's haveli behind these marigolds. The vents are common adornment, and served as privacy screens, so that occupants could view the comings and goings below, and not be seen. More wandering, and I see interesting patterns cast by overhead grates in an old entrance way. Later on, I skip lunch and walk over to some ancient ruins, just across the street from my fellow travelers, eating various delicious meals. There is so much to see in this deep mix of old and new. I find a shell, placed within a deserted shrine to Vishnu, it is one of a small grouping of celebration structures, long forgotten and left to slowly disintegrate, while new developments spring up only 500 meters away. We stop by a piece of local color, written about in Lonely Planet: a bhang shop, government authorized, to sample some of their cookies. Its a herbal flavor, slightly sweet, and just the thing for an overnight train trip. Its finally time to bid goodbye to Jaisalmer, we pay our guide and arrive at the train station.

The train system in India is very well run and very extensive. We find our car, AC1 sleeper class, and see our names and ages posted on the outside in a computer printout in Hindi and English, for everyone to find their coaches. We climb into our berths, with munchies purchased on the train platform. At our next stop, a long one so people can purchase chai from the vendors, Sharon decides to jump out on the platform to clean our windows.

Finally, after sunset, we make our beds with clean sheets, served in recyclable paper bags, and climb under khaki colored India Railways blankets. Its a bumpy, swaying ride through the night, with lights blinking by under a starry night. We do manage to catch some sleep, and the train pulls into Jaipur, and a tired and waiting Chundrun. He decided he would wait to introduce us to our new driver. We board a different van at 4:50am, and travel into the deserted streets, with the van lights illuminating sleeping people, under blankets, on street after street. The poverty appears extreme here, there is so much litter scattered amidst once majestic buildings that were once painted pink for visiting royalty from England. We drove by more palaces, and an astrological observatory, built to keep accurate time in the 1700's by use of a huge sundial.

Everything is still closed, so we head off to Agra, as ancient palaces of a much older place than Jaipur, Amber Fort, sit dark against mountains and a large lake looms up, dancing with an odd mixture of streetlights along it's distant edge. Its a man made lake, a king made this for his many wives so they could go swimming in private. It is huge, but we believe our driver; anything is possible in India.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March 2011: Enroute to Jaisalmer

After a traditional breakfast of aloo parantha with curd and pickle in Jodhpur, we walk between tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles to a spice exporter, and are treated to exotic aromas of mango tea, tandoori spice, sandalwood, and finally a cup of saffron and cinnamon tea, lightly feeling the delicate stamens on our tongues as the exporter, Mr. Bhandari, tells us he ships all over the world; right from this small shop on the side of a dusty street in downtown Jodhpur.

We walk back to our waiting van, to ply the torn pavement roads, jostling our way to our next stop: a family who looms cotton area rugs on an ancient hand loom, placed on the floor. Meanwhile, we pass a camel auction, seeing hundreds of camels, people and a swarm of children and adults selling necklaces and carvings made from local materials.

We finally arrive at the craftsman's home, and view the large assortment of rigs that he produces; we settle on a price and with our rugs nicely wrapped, continue towards Jaisalmer, and the Thar desert. It is becoming distinctly warmer and the dry air whips the curtains of our van interior. We are all resting from the heat and the steady cadence of wheels on pavement and rocking motion produced by pavemenet that has become rippled with the 47C temps of summer.

Our next stop, lunch, finds us at an unlikely place, a safari camp headquarters, and resort, the Manvar. It is an oasis of manicured lawns, security staff in uniforms and exquisitely designed adobe buildings, eating cabanas and smooth mud and straw floors. The waiter, dressed in British Kaki and white tribal pants, serves us cool white wine "Sula" and fettuccine Alfredo....yes, here in the fringe of the desert. Very shortly our tranquility is shattered by the arrival of three European style deluxe buses filled with tourists, name badges and safari shorts attached, to experience a fully catered tent safari camp in the desert, complete with musical instruments and dancers, just like something out of Africa or "Lawrence of Arabia". As I said earlier, India is full of surprises! We continue toward Jaisalmer, thinking of our own camel trek to come.

Our five hour drive takes for miles through desert scrub, the driver points out that this is where the Indian government detonated a nuclear device below the surface in 1995. The military is very present here, with rows of tanks, officers' messes, various command posts and jets flying overhead. We enter an area of pink Sandstone there are small shops busy cutting the stone with huge, 6-8 foot diameter diamond saws, cooled with water spray. Mile after lie of rock quarries brings us to the outskirts of Jaisalmer, and our hotel. It looks strange set in the middle of rock quarries, along with other hotels under construction. India is indeed a land of contrasts. We are greeted by attentive staff, have dinner and wait for what tomorrow may bring.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

March 2011: Jodhpur, home of the Kings

Our driver, Chundron carefully explains that he cannot deliver us to the Krishna Prakash Heritage Haveli, because it is inside the main gate to the fortified inner city. We then board tuk-tuks and have a wild ride through incredible traffic congestion, black sooty exhaust, more cows, and more people, as we rattle over centuries old granite slab cobblestones, each made to withstand the weight of elephants. Night has quickly descended; the narrow streets, built for camels, horses and carts can only tolerate tuk-tuk's in succession, so our three vehicles negotiate each turn, and sometimes there is a dance of tuk-tuks at each narrow intersection. We arrive at the Haveli, check in, then follow our bags hefted on porter's shoulders, quickly up steep marble stairs to a room that has a double bed and one window to the courtyard, plain but everything works, including the plumbing.

We take time to breathe, then lock the door with a huge brass lock, climb the narrow winding steel staircase and arrive at the restaurant deck, then, in an inky-black night sky, the mighty Mehrangarh fortress towers overhead. Now, this is not some small Edinburgh castle, it is HUGE. Look at the picture (off to the right side) I snapped from our restaurant table as fireworks exploded in the sky beside the fortress.

It has been inhabited by a long series of Rajputs, stretching back to the 1200's, and the armour in the castle, which we will see the following day, looks like something from the Crusades. We sit in the serene ambiance of the restaurant, sip Kingfisher beer, eat naan bread, kormas, dahl and steamed rice. We are in Jodhpur, home of Kings.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

March 2011: Our visit to the Jain Temple enroute to Jodhpur

With memories of the project behind us, we take a less-traveled highway so that we can visit a 600 year old Jain temple, built on permutations of the number 72, which is the age at which Sri Ranakpur attained enlightenment. We travel down a winding narrow highway, seeing a small stream below, then around a corner we catch the first glimpse of the exquisite White marble temple.

We arrive, reminded that Jains are non-violent in thought, word and deed, and rebelled against the cast system, seeing everyone equal, including all sentient beings. Jains will not eat any meat product, or any vegetable that may have involved the killing of insects. Therefore, they will not consume any root vegetable because it would involve the destruction of insects and worms that inhabit the soil. We are checked by security attendants to ensure we do not wear any item that is made of leather, and remove our shoes before entering the temple.

It is a hot day but the marble is cool beneath our feet, with 1600 columns supporting domed roofs and archways delicately carved with deities. The High Priest approaches us, laughing as he says, "Developing World Connections", adding that, "it is a good name". But before we can reflect on the meaning, he offers four of us a prayer, recited in Sanscrit, with a deep melodic resonance, strangely in sync with the sharp Chime of a bell, in another part of the temple, struck by devotees. His prayer has us at a loss for words, feeling that we experienced something sacred that dug down deep into each of our souls.

I wander among the columns, in awe of the absolute symmetry, all carved over a period of centuries by hand tools, reflecting down on the mirrored marble slabs, worn now, but only by bare feet, as we tourists have. I feel a strange connection with the generations of Jains that have inhabited this space as I wander over to watch Jain monk, in saffron and burgundy robe, mouth screen in place so that does not inadvertently inhale an insect and kill it. He is slowly but firmly drawing a large piece of sandalwood over the wet surface of a round, shallow piece of marble, grooved to act as a grinder, so that fine pieces of sandalwood collect in a wood and water slurry, to eventually be offered wet, and dry as incense, to God. It is a snapshot of something that has been going on since the very beginning of the Jain Order.

We continue to marvel, photograph, then with time ebbing, and more kilometers to go, we bid goodbye to Sri Ranakpur.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 2011: Our Project is Completed!

This is the first time that a DWC project has been completed in a two-week period, according to Heera. We think it is largely due to the hard work of the self-help groups (community members) of the Bhinder area and all the fun we had, helping them. We like to think that the relationships we developed over the two weeks helped to ease the drudgery of hauling and digging they would have done on their own. Here we all are in our "official" completion photograph (see below).

We're relieved it could be completed in our time here, now we are going to attend completion celebrations with the community which includes a lunch, traditional dance and they said they are going to dress us in traditional attire. Stay tuned!

Cam Grant

DW Team Leader

March 2011: Forest, Farming and Project Activities

We are visiting a forest that is protected from degradation, which is a problem in Rajasthan; people cut down the teak trees and any brush for cooking meals, then because of a law that allows access of livestock to common land, the grass is eaten down to the roots.

The trees here are growing back naturally, and we notice the air is cooler and less arid because of the moderating influence of trees on the landscape.

The project is almost complete and the whole project experience has been a whirlwind of activities. We jump into the jeep...or should I say, cram into the jeep, drive back through the busy, smoky, noisy city of Bhinder, out to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, drive back by 9:30pm, crawl into bed, then sleep restlessly, awaken at 6am, read, shower, then delicious sweet chai served in our room common area, conversation, jog down the stairs into the ancient courtyard, up more stairs to what was the Raj's guest arrival terrace in the 1800's, more conversation, eggs, rice, a curried wheat mixture, toast, more tea, then into our work boots and into the jeep to drive through the quieter morning streets of Bhinder, out into the country, while adults and children wave and yell "namaste" as we drive by, then meeting women carrying bugle loads of sticks for firewood on their heads, and others carrying pots of drinking water home, school girls dressed in sky-blue uniforms, with white pants, walking several kilometers to class....there is no obesity problem in India!

Farming families have only recently begun to thresh mustard weeds, barley, rice and wheat by machine, but all still harvest using small hand scythes, bending over, gathering a handful of stalks in the left hand, cutting it with the right hand, then gathering it into a stook, for threshing.

Cam Grant

DW Team Leader

March 2011: Our weekend in Udaipur at the markets

We spent the weekend exploring Udaipur, watched the sunset from the spectacular Monsoon Palace ruin atop a lofty peak and treated ourselves to custom-made shirts, miniature paintings depicting folk traditions and Pashmina Kashmir scarves.

Udaipur's narrow streets, built for horses and carts in the 1500's, like every town we have visited so far, is congested with motorcycles, jockeying for the fastest passage through the throngs of pedestrians, cows, dogs, vans, tuk-tuks and hand-pushed carts. Industry is mixed with retail, much of it confined to 2m by 6m stalls with sliding doors that can be secured at night. I look into one of the stalls and I see a man covered in soot, turning a hand blower directed beneath a glowing bed of coals on which is the bottom part of a grey, brass water jug, the type that can be easily carried on the top of a head; a very common sight in all parts of India, were people carry water back to their homes from public taps. The man deftly hammers the rim until it is wide enough to accept the upper portion, with the aid of the coals, he fluxes and brazes the two halves together. A second person turns a cooled pot over, mixes sand with water, then with bare hands, scours the surface of the pot, revealing brass with streaks of copper. The pot will then be polished to complete the work. Here is a samosa vendor, with shot of typical retail stalls behind.

There are stalls containing iron works, rugs, tailors, fast food deep fried in cauldrons, shoe manufacturing - India is quite literally, a blur of commerce where, lacking a social safety net, everyone must sell, make, clean, etc, in order to feed themselves and their family. A shop owner tells me that he sells his items on EBay and a hotel owner says a representative from the Timberland line of apparel has been securing manufacturing contracts for their overseas market.

With memories of Udaipur, we returned to the Raj Mahal Bhinder, some of us have stomach upsets and colds but we put in a valiant days work at the site. The wall is nearing completion, with the final rocks being mortared into place. We shifted our resources to prying rocks out of the ground and carrying them to the site of a second wall, used for slowing the monsoon torrent before it arrives at the main mortared wall. This secondary wall consists of large boulders in the base and flat angular pieces of shale-like rock placed around them. This wall will only be 2m high, but sufficient to do it's job. There will be another mortar wall built further down the gully after we leave.

The weather is steadily becoming warmer, in the 30C range, with bright sun in a smoky blue sky and light breeze.

Cam Grant

DW Team Leader

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

February 2011: Visited two completed DWC projects

On Friday we visited a climatic monitoring project and the sites of two other completed DWC funded projects before returning to Udaipur. As revealed in all projects so far, the farmers who are involved, double their incomes, learn new agricultural practices and become self-sufficient in only 3+ years. There is an oasis on the up-valley side of each water catchment wall, recharged wells and a much deeper understanding by self-help farmers of how climate and groundwater affect their agricultural production.

Next we are off to visit a very small village and have tea with the residents.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

February 2011: Getting into a routine

We arrived at the site to find that the first layer was nearing completion. Room was made for larger rocks by means of a temporary long stone ramp built against the foundation. The mortar crew was kept busy by a line of women carrying mortar on their heads right to where it was needed; the same with the rock crew.

Some of the volunteers returned to Bhinder to resume testing and issuing eyeglasses. Eventually both teams met in a home that a farmer graciously offered for the eyesight testing.

The work days are becoming more routine as we grow to expect what our duties will be on the project site. Tomorrow we work throughout the day then return to Udaipur and the Jaiwana Haveli.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

February 2011: Hard work and a cultural celebration

A bright, sunny day with temperatures in the high 20s. We arrived at the the site and started work right away. The engineer directs the overall building of the rock and mortar water retention structure so that it will be strong enough to withstand heavy monsoon water, and last many years.

This particular location is a slight constriction in the gully so that water and sediment will accumulate behind the structure, causing the entire up-slope side to fill in with rich fertile soil over one or two decades, eventually creating an oasis of arable land, as well as feeding the water table, as demonstrated in the 10-year old structures we saw yesterday. As you can see from the photo, the transformation fro unstable land to verdant farm is striking; notice the structure between each hill in the center of the photograph, and the sealer structure on the lower left.

Men generally pry up large metamorphic rocks out of the earth around the structure, breaking them in to smaller pieces to fill in the voids around the larger rocks that are placed in the wall. Women and men carry the smaller rocks to the structure, mix cement and sand to make mortar, carry water from the wet oasis 500 M away, while the engineer directs placement of materials.

The work is hot, and we are each learning to carry rock, water and pans of mortar on our heads, which is more efficient than carrying heavy objects with our hands in front of us, saving strain on our backs. We all immediately feel our backs assuming an upright posture, allowing fluid movement of legs, and yes, it is possible to look in front of you, while caring a pan of mortar on top of your head, without spilling a drop.

Cathy and John Greven left the group mid-day with Sharon and Kathy to meet adults at the community school who had vision difficulties. They had brought batches of new, donated reading glasses, separated by strength, then with an eye chart that had universal symbols, determined which eyeglasses were needed, and issued a pair to correct close-up vision. They also brought several eyeglasses that could be adjusted to correct myopia by increasing or decreasing diopter with a a simple liquid silicone syringe; once the refraction was correct, the syringe tube could be permanently clamped and removed. Several villagers had their vision corrected as a result, which proved to be emotional for everyone involved.

The volunteers that were at the water retention structure left the project at noon, and rendezvoused with the eyeglasses volunteers so they could see the results of the eyeglasses team. We then had lunch, prepared for the cultural evening and walked through the Bhinder streets looking for local treasures.

The cultural evening was amazing: we arrived at the village meeting place in total darkness, greeted by more than 100 hundred villagers, many wearing brown blankets to protect them from the chilly night air.

We removed our shoes and sat down on opened rice bags spread over the smooth concrete of the area, then the real fun began. The local amateur musicians, with a four stringed instrument, drums and hand cymbals, sang ancient songs, a man danced, several small groups of children sang, while between each of their presentations, the volunteers scrambled to sing songs for them, including "this land is your land, this land is my land".

Tea was served, many smiles were shared, and once again we were immersed in the World community, not Canadian or Indian, but part of the World community.

Cam Grant

DWC Team Leader

February 2011: Working on the project site

The team worked at the project site until noon, helping farmers haul rock, sand, prepared concrete, and water from a nearby creek. They also participated in concrete mixing and clearing away the final pieces of rock and dirt from bedrock. The dam was blessed with offerings of incense for fire, rock, air and water to Lord Shiva. Tools were also blessed, and all workers were marked on the forehead with red ochre, and given pieces of ceremonial coconut and soft chunks of raw sugar, which tasted like light molasses.

The volunteers worked hard and carefully with their new friends of India, demonstrating their commitment toward the project in muscle power as well as financially. It was far harder to leave the project today than the yesterday, owing to the strengthening camaraderie and joyful song and laughter on both sides.

The volunteers then had lunch and were given an in-depth overview of the many water catchment dams and water velocity reduction rock structures, by the concept developer, and expert in water hydrology in catchment zones, Dr. Manot. After the overview, we finished lunch, and jumped into the van to see the results for ourselves. The first development we visited was completed in 2000 and all farming families in this area are now self-sufficient.

Cam Grant
DWC Team Leader

February 2011: A Warm Welcoming to Bhinder

A daily routine is starting to set in with some things; volunteers each spend time reflecting on the day, writing their recollections into their journals, remembering the extraordinary events that occur every day.

This is the way in India...Heera said we would be meeting the community council members today, then we would visit the project work site. Quite unexpectedly, after winding along narrow roads, dodging cows, dogs, men and women carrying loads of sticks that were twice the size of them, or others, with graceful strides, carrying pots of water on their heads, we arrived at a small school far on the outskirts of Bhinder.

We could see women and children in the school yard, but after disembarking with our day packs, we were greeted with such warmth that we were at a loss for words. A young woman emerged from the crowd, carrying a metal tray, holding a simple urn of water and a small shallow dish. Within the dish was a small amount of wet, red paste - the material that would forever bond us to these people, India and humanity. Carefully, she looked into my eyes, dipped a finger into the paste, and made a long cool-feeling mark on my forehead, then touched a final pat of paste onto my hair. The school principal then placed a garland of orange chrysanthemums around my neck, grabbed my hand firmly, and welcomed me into their community, school, and so much more. The pair, watched by more than one hundred women, men and children, with equal care and thoughtfulness, approached each member of our group and welcomed them accordingly.

After removing our shoes, we sat on mats, while everyone who could fit on the school veranda around us, crossed their legs and sat around us. Heera made introductions, spoke at length about the partnership between these farming families, Developing World Connections and what the mutual and collective partnership of people cooperatively working together are capable of.
Several self-help group representatives stood, and each in turn, with palms pressed together in friendship and greeting of equals, soul to soul, told how this cooperative relationship has improved their own lives, their immediate family members, and the greater community. Elders were introduced and all spoke eloquently as hushed community members listened in silent reverence and admiration.
There was so much to be proud of all around, and as each volunteer rose to speak, our words of gratitude for being able to share a small part of our lives with each of them, seemed to come from some deep place that holds all humanity together, regardless of distance, culture and time. A small group of school girls stood and sang a beautiful song of friendship and greeting that has been used by their community for centuries.
A young boy then stood and sing an ancient, and almost melancholy song, with his clear melodic voice, that brought lumps to our throats and tears to our eyes.
After the formal ceremonies ended, and we pulled ourselves together, we were swarmed with warm greetings, smiling faces and all of this, using only the language of warmth, gestures, and eyes that spoke many things of the heart.

Our morning was not even over, and the red paste, that was now dry on our foreheads, reminded us that a profound experience had just occurred, and would take much time to sink in to where it was being called from that sacred place from within each of us. We bid the families farewell, climbed back into our vans, and with much fanfare, photographs and waving, we regretfully climbed back into our vans to visit the location that would be our work site.

The setting of the site is within an eroded furrow in the land, where monsoon rains flash down the slope, leaving only enough water behind to support low prickly scrub bushes and desert palms. Decades of overgrazing and lower than normal rainfalls have brought this area to the point where any form of agriculture is impossible. Then Heera showed us what community self-help groups can do when they work collectively to improve a 54 hectare parcel of adjacent land. The community enclosed the land with a 1.5 meter rock wall in 2002 and the change, and with small rock runoff-velocity reducing walls in some gullies, dramatically changed the landscape to where the indigenous grasses yielded a harvest of hand-scythed animal fodder in the first year, and planted trees are now growing for future resources.

We completed the day by helping the families dig a deep ditch across a shallow gully in preparation for the coming water runoff retention wall. Then, with wonderfully aching muscles, we returned to our home base to reflect on another amazing experience.

Cam Grant
DWC Team Leader

February 2011: Saturday in Udaipur

The volunteers arrived in Udaipur and were met by Heera Lal Sharma, our host partner. We were deftly transported down busy highways where the center line is used for "aiming" your vehicle towards your destination, while oncoming traffic jostles for their own space, demonstrating time and time again, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

We are immersed in the sounds of beeping horns, cows meandering ( they trump any other right-of-way), motorcycles buzzing, camels hauling mountains of hay, people chatting on the side of the road, the heady fragrances of refuse burning, small trucks caring seemingly impossible loads of wrapped "whatever"... You get the picture. Now we arrive in downtown Udaipur; but this Is not your typical downtown in Canada! It's writhing with people; more cows, holy people, business people, tourist people...yes, that's us, reeling amidst sensory overload.

Winding through streets without names, the width of a back alley in Canada. Think of the microscopic view of capillaries pumping red blood cells, and you will be with us. There never has been a "left or right" side of the street, we are all just "there" all of us, trying to reach our respective the shortest path.

We arrive at the Jaiwana Haveli with Heera, disembark, bags deposited onto the sidewalk, "just leave them there, they are perfectly safe" says Yash, one of the owners. They are safe, we are in complete trust mode now. Heera gives us a quick overview of what is to come, understands our looks of exhaustion and amazement, and bids us farewell until tomorrow. Our tomorrow is still your today, because we have crossed the international date-line, and are 13 1/2 hours ahead of Vancouver, and another world away.

We visit the second largest castle in Rajasthan, on the tallest mountain in Udaipur, overlooking a lake that will take your breath away, guarded by the military festooned in brilliant head pieces, and built upon, layer upon layer, by a successive line of Mewarts since the 6th Century. And then there is the food....rice, dhals, curries, Roti, sandwiches deep fried along the busy streets of I dont mean busy in the north American sense, I mean, crowded like the front of a stadium right after a concert, except that here, the concert is still playing; a cacophony of sensory overload, that finally...begins to sink into a new level of "normal", for it truly is Saturday in Udaipur and we have to pinch ourselves to believe that we are here, that it isn't a dream...or perhaps it is.

Cam Grant
DWC Team Leader