True Facts



~ Wednesday, May 29, 2002
 
I Can't Explain


Kolkata May 2002. It is sensory stimulation hour and I have been given a child. St Francis of Assissi is about eight years old, autistic and probably blind. He wears a threadbare orange T-shirt and grubby corduoroy shorts. His hair is shaved close to the scalp, revealing freshly scabbed wounds. He can't, or won't, walk by himself. I'm helpless. It's years since I've done care work and I don't know what to do. The aging electric massager has four attachments - a suction cup for the face and neck, a ridged rectangle for the limbs, a blunt snub for the torso and a square for the head. I also have toys of different textures - a rubber daffy duck, a piece of fur. And I can use my fingers to tickle and pinch, my voice to cajole and soothe. He might not be able to hear me. But maybe the words aren't for him. Gradually, I apply the different tools at my disposal to St Francis. Mostly I get no reaction. But occasionally I get a smile. He particularly likes to rest his chin on the vibrating rubber suction cup. Maybe it reminds him of the crook of his mother's arm as she weeps. Maybe he just likes to rest his chin on vibrating rubber cups. The plug for the massager is heavy and the socket is set high above the table on which we work. I have to pull him out of the way when it falls. By the end of the hour, he has wrapped himself around me and I must gingerly prise him off. The vibrations have opened up the wounds on his scalp and a trickle of blood mixes with the drool on his shirt. With the sound of my sweet nothings battling the smell of stale urine, I walk him downstairs.

Communication: (n) An impossible necessity.

Telepathy: (n) A consistent and pernicious human wish. The idea that we can communicate without the barriers of language. that we can have direct access to another soul without confusion. Without interference. Without effort. This wish wilfully forgets that it is through confusion, through interference, through effort, that our relationships are born. The muscles in the mouth and throat and arms and fingers - all the work to make communication worthwhile. If we could do it perfectly once, what would be the point of doing it gain. Maybe we are already telepathic and the silence we sense is the true state of our mental affairs.

Misunderstand: (v) To create an opportunity.

Kolkata May 2002. A rickshaw wallah dogs at my heels.
"Friend. Friend. I take you there very cheap. 25 Rupees."
I stop short in surprise.
"You don't know where I'm going yet."
Maybe her does. Maybe all the rickshaw wallahs in Kolkata are telepathic.

Kolkata May 2002. We are going to the leprosorium in the suburbs of Kolkata run by the Brothers. Twenty of us set out from the Mothership early on a Thursday morning. We catch a bone-shaker bus to Sealdah station. There isn't enough room to sit so I grab onto the wooden frame of the bus that sticks
out like ribs. The ticket guy asks for money - ten rupee notes fan out from his fingers like a peacock knuckle-duster. Within minutes we pull up outside Sealdah station and us visitors are led of the bus by a smartly-dressed young man. The ticket guy looks at the young man, then me, then shakes his head. His expression is unreadable.
The young man leads us to the ticket counter and then onto a local train. The women travel in one carriage, the men in another. We swiftly break up into linguistic groups (French, German, Spanish, Japanese). I am left with Ryan - a zealous catholic from Indianapolis who wears a crucifix that may be life-sized - but I'm too scared to get that close. Ryan has the habit of answering questions with
pre-packaged slices of papal dogma. He asks me why so many walls in Bengal have a Hammer and Sickle emblem on them. I tell about the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the ideas of 'communism' and 'socialism' in general - expecting a thorough smiting
for the espousal of such a godless creed. Instead he listens and asks questions. I ask Ryan about the young man. Apparently he's been with the Sisters since he was a child and carries out little errands for them. He's mute. he shows us a tattoo of a cross on his arm. This pleases Ryan no end - "Praise God", he warmly shouts at our bemused Hindu carriage companions. The mute then mimes playing a guitar and tries to sing. But all he can say is "Ammmm" - which sounds like the Bangla for mango. As nobody seems to know his name, I call him Mango.
Leprosy - or Hansen's Disease - is caused by a bacterium. It attacks the skin, muscles and nervous system. Sufferers literally lose their feelings (I wonder how many Indian bureaucrats suffer from it). Without the presence of pain, they injure themselves - losing fingers and toes to boiling water. Their bodies are out of the loop. The mute takes us into the leper colony. We see the cured, non-infectious patients - treatment takes 6-18 months we are told by one of the Brothers. Some work spinning cloth - made into clothes for the poor and the blue-edged saris worn by the Sisters. They make prosthetics for lost limbs and shoes for broken feet. They raise animals and farm land. There is a school for their children. Two girls at the school sing and dance for us, their routine scuppered by the constant interruptions of a stage-struck tiny tot.
What affects me most is the dressing room. Patients treat other patients - removing old bandages, cleaning wounds, applying fresh coverings. All done carefully and efficiently. We visitors are unnecessary. What the hell are we doing here? Providing human warmth?
Contact? Communication? Satisfying our curiosity? Parasitizing these people for emotions is the same way the TB bacterium parasitizes their bodies ? One guy runs towards us shouting: "Photo! Photo! Photo!" What could he want? We are lead through ward after ward of patients. Some greet us. Some shake our hands. Some look away. Who's watching whom? We visitors have split into linguistic groups again. I overhear a French couple discussing whether it is possible to catch the disease off the cured patients - they haven't been listening or maybe understanding.
At the end of the tour we are back at the office of the Brothers. Someone suggests that we give the mute a few rupees each. But he insists that we donate the money to the Brothers.

Kolkata April 2002. Tiny Tim has just come back from Bangladesh. "They always ask you what religion you are", he says. Tiny Tim does not believe in God. "Saying you have no religion is like saying you don't have a language there."

London November 1998. I talk to my flatmate's sister late one night. She writes poetry and had a strong religious adolescence. I ask her if writing ever feels like possession. She smiles.

Kolkata May 2002. One of the long term volunteers asks how the leprosorium trip went. I say OK. I mention the mute. He warns me Mango is a confidence trickster and to be on my guard.

Bodh Gaya March 2002. I take photographs of the school children to interest Western sponsors. I want them to look downtrodden yet hopeful. A bit thin and ragged wouldn't go amiss. I want emotional blackmail. "The Money Shot" they call it in fund-raising circles. The school children turn up in their best clothes. Well groomed and mustering all the confidence they have. They don't look poor enough! They pose for the camera wearing saris kept impossibly clean in mud huts.

Bodh Gaya March 2002. I have talked to some friends about getting sponsorship for the school children. No one hs replied so far. I check my email. There's a message from an ex-colleague, replying to my request. It's says he's sorry but he can't spare any money. But he does offer me something. It's a piece of advice; If the girls at the school become prostitutes they can probably earn some money. Also included is a link to a book on Amazon.com about vaginal fisting. I start crying. It's a joke. And so are these people's lives. Some of the tears are for me too. What I see and hear and do and feel, I try to put into words. They aren't up to the job though. I can't make you understand. I can't explain.
~ Friday, March 22, 2002
 
Frankly My Dear, I Don't Give A Dharma


This piece has now moved here.
~ Sunday, March 10, 2002
 
The Development Tourism Manifesto


Why Development Tourism?

Thirty years ago a holiday for most people meant a beer and a beach. Then the hippies came along, broadening (or should that be expanding) their minds through travel to the exotic East. Like or not, we're all hippies now and the trails through India and South East Asia swarm with the West's young and not-so-young, searching for "experiences". For some this means hurling themselves down white water rapid where as others prefer the Himalayan views. And for a few it means exploring a different culture. Not everybody has a good time doing this - all they seem to encounter are touts and conmen. But what do you really expect if you don't speak the language and know little of local customs in the first place?

And what do the host countries get from this? Well, some people get very rich. However most of the population never see that money. they dream of a cash kick start they could use to change their lives. But hey, their poverty keeps your travelling costs down and adds a little local colour. So we have the Developed World (or North) seeking experiences and the Developing World (or South) seeking cash directed to where it is needed. On top of which, both sides need to come up with an alternative vision of globalization as the current one seems to be just Economic Imperialism Mk II.

So what am I suggesting? A different form of tourism. One that is responsible, sustainable and equitable. where those in the North visit the South on its own terms and give as well as take.

What It Is Not

It may help to first describe what it could be mistaken for:

1. It is not backpacking. Basically low budget sight seeing, few backpackers spend long enough in one place to adopt the language and customs. They make few concessions to the cultures they are in. For instance in India, you may have adopt different clothes and abstain from cigarettes and alcohol to meet local standards of respectability.

2. It is not volunteering. Thousands of idealistic people from the North go every year to sink wells, build schools and dig latrines. They get the warm glow of having done good. But how much do the local people benefit from this? Much experience has shown that the best people to plan, build and maintain these facilities are the locals themselves. Poverty is a complex problem and it is not solved by the band-aid of voluntary work. Volunteers are often simply a well-meaning nuisance.

3. It is not professional development work. Some individuals stay in communities long term and work with those communities, sharing their trials and successes. Most Northerners simply do not have the time to commit to this intensive vocation.

What It Is

Having said that, Development Tourism contains elements of the above three roles. You will see some sights, you will get your hands dirty and you will learn the facts of everyday life in the Developing World. Now lets talk more about the positives.

1. Responsible. You learn the language and the customs. You live with the people in their houses and wear their clothes. You are a guest and behave as such.

2. Sustainable. These people's lives carry on after you leave. Don't try to be an expert or a saviour. Respect the environment. Live simply and know your limits.

3. Equitable. Give some money to projects that can really help: health, education, and income generation are good places to start. think of it as part of your holiday expenses. And tell people what it's like out there or they'll never know.

That was all a bit serious, eh? So what's it been like for me. I'm in the middle of a three month stint in India, mostly staying at and writing about rural development projects in the North of the country. I have been delighted and shocked - seen children dance and grown men cry. There has been much generosity and kindness shown me and I've developed a great respect for India and its inhabitants. But enough about me. What experience do you want?

For one example of Development Tourism see here.

To comment on this article write me.
 
You'll Be Sari


In England, rites of passage are monochrome. The bride is in white, the mourners in black. It's as though at moments of emotional stress, the cones in our eyes fail and we're left with night vision, in the dark. This observation came to me on the back of Pramod's motorbike. While we were whizzing across town on a series of errands, we kept encountering a funeral in progress. It began with men carrying the body down the wide streets, banging drums as they came. The body was covered in sheets of white and gold, garlanded with orange flowers and the occasional satsuma. It looked like a Christmas stocking for the Grim Reaper. In the end, they were the body by the river. Or more exactly in the river as the monsoon was months away and what had been a broad shallow expanse of water was now sand. You use wood to burn a body and wood is expensive. The fire was only small and I made a mental note to cease using the riverbed as a beach in future.
Pramod's bike was unusual. It was the only motorbike I had ridden that had been fitted with stabilizers. This wasn't because Pramod was six or hadn't got his motorcycling proficiency badge. It was because Pramod was unusual too. As a child he had been hit by the double whammy of polio and a collapsing building. He now practiced and taught various forms of acupressure and ran primary and secondary schools in the surrounding villages in his spare time. Unassuming in manner, he was nevertheless intelligent, determined and something of a networker. He knew useful people in restaurants and internet cafes. He bought me lunch a couple of times, which was nice until I saw the size of the apartment he lived in. Overwhelmed with guilt, I attempted to pay my way after that. On this particular day we had been to the secondary school. It was run in a disused seal factory (the kind used on pipes, not the kind with flippers). I had given the children a geography lesson that had been scuppered by my lack of artistic ability.
Me: (Pointing to my fine rendering of South America) What is this?
Child: Er, a carrot?
We had then taken some photos of the pupils. The blokes were a bit camera shy but came forward readily enough. By contrast, the girls were very keen to be immortalized in all their glory. Unfortunately they seemed to have difficulty in completing their preparations in the nine hours before sunset. Calls of "Jaldi" (hurry up) were answered with "Ek minute". Forty-five ek minutes later they were ready and the posing began in earnest. I was even persuaded to join in a group shot, holding a red flower in a sensitive manner. I just hope that Pramod is never driven to the thought of blackmail.

I was staying at an ashram in town that Pramod had once taught at. It's mentioned in the Lonely Planet and so attracts a steady stream of visitors - at that time there were three level headed Danes, a nouveau-hippy couple from Oz and a Japanese organic farmer. The ashram takes in orphans and pauper children from the surrounding villages and gives them and food, shelter and an education. The children were energetic, curious and impossible to control. And therefore surprisingly normal. The whole enterprise was run by Dwarkoji. A certified Great Man, he ran two such ashrams and a host of smaller projects in the villages. I knew he was a Great Man because he had letters from Marlon Brando and the Dalai Lama. These two have a lot in common: one is the reincarnation of Buddha and the other looked like Buddha during his Apocalypse Now Barrage Balloon phase. Or to be more accurate six king-sized, all-you-can-eat Buddhas with a side order of fries and megalomania.
Whilst I liked and respected Dwarkoji, I also found him a little wearing. It wasn't because of his opinions - although these ranged from the admirable to the strange. Any great individual is bound to have a couple of wonky toys in the box - otherwise they are not really trying. Just as any record collection worth its salt should have a Billy Ray Cyrus or Stone Temple Pilots CD lurking behind the critically accredited Massive Attack, Marvin Gaye, etc. No, it was his habit of answering any question with a lengthy story involving himself, Gandhi, Buddha, Mohammed or Christ. And preferably all of them. This was fine when plumbing the depths of the human soul but it made simple tasks - say, discovering when the water tank would be fixed - a major hassle. I soon realized that it was also a cunning rhetorical maneuver. By the end of the parable, you had often forgotten what your original point was. I tried adopting the same strategy myself but I have not met Gandhi - or even Marlon Brando. In fact, the best I can do is a comedian on Channel Five that I was at college with. And that just doesn't carry the same rhetorical weight.
Anyway, one of the Danes got invited to a wedding. And by extension, we were all invited. Now my host in Lucknow had shown me pictures of his wedding and it looked like the last days of Studio 54. Without the drugs. Or the sex. Or the disco music. In fact, all it had in common was the stunning clothing and chaos and that was enough for me.
Most marriages in India are of the arranged kind. Unarranged marriages are known as "love matches" and those that engage in them can expect ostracism and abuse from their relatives rather than a nice toaster or some colour co-ordinated bedding. Marriages are arranged by the parents and most Indians I spoke to seemed happy with this. Having seen the sweaters my Mum chooses for me, I would be far less comfortable with the thought of her powers being extended to spouse selection. N.B. "Arranged" does not mean "forced" but there but there is a strong social pressure to conform. The other thing to note is that the dowry system still flourishes in India. The bride's family are expected o provide the groom with a radio, a motorbike and whatever else the little prince desires. And they have a strong incentive to do so. the bride goes to live with her beau's family and the dowry is basically a bribe to keep the in-laws sweet. On effect of this is that boy children are favoured above girls. Another consequence is that unsatisfactory brides are abused - in a few cases this culminates in 'bride burning'. This is not much talked about but does occur. "Hi everyone, meet Reena. What happened to Surita? Oh, Things didn't work out so I murdered her in a callous act of material calculation. Pass the daal will you, darling..."

Hindu weddings kick off late - at around the time where most English weddings would have degenerated into an inebriated free-for-all. We arrived at the wedding house at 8pm. We knew it was the wedding house because its covering of fairy lights made it resemble an oblong Christmas tree. Having shaken a few hands, we were ushered into a brightly coloured marquee, full of plastic seating. At one end was a raised platform containing two red and gold thrones-cum-armchairs that even Julian Clary might consider garish. We were given boxes of tasty sweets and the room gradually filled with women in gorgeous saris. They sat doing what women do at weddings the world over - competitively compared clothes and gossiped about families. Whilst women, children and westerners sat in the tent, the blokes stood around outside doing what blokes do at weddings the world over - competitively compared salaries and gossiped about sport. At around 9:30, the soundsystem playing Hindi music at deafening volume was turned down slightly and the crowd turned to face the road outside. A parade of light was approaching. People waving huge torches came down the street, followed by some kind of carriage. All the men went to greet the wedding party and the parade disappeared from view. I looked around the marquee. It was pretty full. Was the ceremony a women-only affair? I might pass as an extremely ugly woman but Aussie Paul had a beard. Having traveled on a fair few Indian buses and trains I should have known better. The men swiftly returned and began to fill every available space in the tent, displacing such wasteful luxuries as oxygen. Once everyone was inside, the groom entered and sat on one of the thrones. With a crisp business suit, a bejeweled turban, and a neutral expression, he looked like a Maharaja in enduring a testing meeting with his marketing department. After a suitable interval the bride arrived with her maids. The bride wore a rasta's dream of a sari - a riot of red, gold and green. Her glazed expression and evident difficulty walking seemed to imply she'd been given something slightly stronger than tasty sweets but that may have just been wedding nerves. And the mountain of gold she was wearing didn't help either. She was literally dripping in the stuff. From The chains coming out of her nose it looked like she'd caught a nasty cold off Jimmy Saville. None of that gold was reflecting a smile though. And this was the freaky thing. Everybody else was deliriously happy but the two key participants were completely deadpan. In the West a weeding is supposed to be the couple's day. In India it is arranged by and for the family with the bride and groom simply discharging their filial duty.
The bride was given some prashad to anoint her intended. the brief food fight over, they garlanded each other with saffron flowers and exited. All the action was caught by a video camera with some sort of stadium floodlight attached to it. At one point it scanned the crowd and temporarily blinded me. With that and the pounding Hindi music reaching Mary Chain levels of distortion, I began to understand why the bride might looked disorientated. Even hardened terrorists crack under this kind of pressure. At this point our driver (who had been itching to leave from the moment we arrived) threatened to go without us. So, pausing only to push start the jeep down a muddy hill in our finest wedding threads, home we went. We missed the second part of the wedding ceremony, that takes place inside the family home, but I think that was for intimates only anyway.

It is easy to understand why the bride isn't always cheerful. Women get a tough time in India. Some of the girls at Pramod's school had been promised in marriage since they were nine and would go to their husbands as soon as they reached sexual maturity. In poorer families, the wives not only cook, clean and care for the children but hold down jobs to supplement the incomes of their feckless menfolk. They could expect to bear up to eight children and widows, unlike widowers, are not permitted to remarry but instead must depend on the charity of their offspring. To add insult to injury, the Hindu faith does not allow women the opportunity to escape from the karmic wheel of existence. Moksha is a men-only club. Consequently, most of the lower caste women I met were as hard as nails. Even the 7-year old girls at the ashram had attitudes to put Missy Elliott to shame. At one point, four of them chased me round the building Benny Hill-style whilst threatening dire retribution if I failed to supply them with satsumas. like any red-blooded man, I valiantly locked myself in my room and stuffed bananas in my ears until they went away. However, once the women realized you weren’t out to rob or mess with them, they could be a lot of fun. Most of the projects I visited were run by men but the actual work was done by women. India's most undervalued resource is its female population.
The next day, I was back on the back of Pramod's bike. Where the funeral procession had been a couple of days before, we passed a long line of mothers in saris and daughters in salwar kamiz. I asked Pramod where they were going. He told me there was a women's activist meeting going on down the road. They were getting organized.
~ Friday, February 22, 2002
 
Much Aloo About Nothing


You can tell a lot about a culture from its food. To understand the dour, masochistic nature of Reformist Christianity you can either read 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' or, if lacking the time, simply sit down to an English meal. With it's paltry appetizers, dry meat/soggy veg and tasty desserts, English cuisine expounds the Christian view of life: we don't believe in anything beforehand, the main course is a vale of tears but afters are quite nice if you make it that far. Hinduism has slightly different approach to food. Whilst staying with one Indian host in Lucknow, he invited me to witness his sharadda - a ceremony to commemorate the death of his father. Under the direction of a Brahmin priest he prepared a full meal for everyone present and anointed a statue. It was like Ready Steady Cook but with more emotional depth and less evidence of inbreeding. Afterwards, I told him how privileged I felt to have witnessed this event. Pausing over a puri, he looked me in the eye and said: "You are indeed fortunate. I don't normally do lunch but this one's on Dad."
After leaving Lucknow, I went to visit a development project further east in Uttar Pradesh. Here I was placed under the watchful gaze of Babuji. With 35 years experience in social work and rural activism, he wasn't a man to take any shit. "We had an Englishman here a few years ago", he mentioned, adding, "he was just like you". It soon became apparent Babuji saw in me in the same light as the seven puppies that lived next to the project building: our needs would be met but when out of order we would gently but firmly be brought back into line.
The project as huge, covering a quarter of a million villagers. After a couple of days, it was decided that a few of us were to make a journey to a remote district and meet with some other NGO leaders there. The day began at 6am. I was brought rice halva (a dish like semolina), then garja halva (made with carrots), and finally another halva like flapjacks. Then we headed off in the jeep. Three hours later, we arrived at our destination., where we had a breakfast of samosa, sweets and chai. Chai loosely translates as tea. The recipe is:
1. Place water, tea leaves, a lot of milk and as much sugar as you can find in a saucepan.
2. Boil vigorously.
3. Strain, serve and consume.
4. Wait for your teeth to dissolve.
Soon I found myself sitting cross-legged in the middle of an energetic discussion conducted solely in Hindi. Occasionally a phrase such as "internet resource" or "training facilitation" loomed out of the linguistic murk and everybody would look at me. I would nod slowly, which is the internationally understood gesture for "I have no idea what you are talking about but it sounds really cool".
After three, muscle cramping, chai- and sweet-fueled hours, agreement was reached. We broke for lunch. A standard Indian meal consists of chapati, chaval (rice), sabje (curried vegetables) and daal (a pulse-based foodstuff with a consistency that can vary from the impenetrable to the watery). The roti is used to scoop up the sabje in a trowel-like movement, while the daal is mixed with the rice to form a glutinous concoction that can be eaten with the fingers. Food is served on metal plates or trays and knives and forks are a rare (though you may get a spoon if you ask nicely). Food is eaten with the right hand as the left is reserved for toilet functions. However food is served to others or taken from a common plate with the left hand, to prevent adulteration with saliva. So essentially, you don't eat your own shit but you generously offer it to others. I often get the feeling this system was designed for beings with more arms. Which may be why Hindu gods have four.
With lunch over, he headed home. It was a lovely sunny day but about an hour from our destination I began to feel rather peculiar. I really, really, really had to go to the toilet. Intuition told me that this would involve a certain amount of 'collateral damage' and so I was reluctant to go by the side of the road. Instead I elected to grit my teeth, tighten my spincter and wait. This went well until we reached the penultimate town. It was election time and the electioneers were out in force, jamming the streets with tempos and jeeps. Our outward progress slowed to a crawl while my internal situation was definitely hotting up. I wished with all my heart that the Greeks had confined themselves to mathematics and buggery and kept out of the democratic arena entirely. Finally, just as I thought all was lost and I would have to pay for some serious reupholstery work, we cleared the town and arrived home. I ran to the toilet as fast as I could.

An Indian squat toilet is essentially a porcelain hole in the ground with two footpads on either side. A tap (or bucket of water), along with a jug, should also be present. Having dropped your linen and done the deed, you then clean yourself up with the water and your left hand. There are some key points of etiquette:
1. Wash away the evidence.
2. Don't lave the bucket empty.
3. Do not use toilet paper as this causes blockages.
4. Wash your hands afterwards.
Above all, using a squat toilet is like climbing a mountain: lose your footing and you are in serious trouble [I can honestly say that since using the squat toilet I am now much more in touch with my own arse].
Anyway, back to my predicament. Just as I got into position there was a sound like thunder. Dubya had extended Operation Infinite Justice to my bowels. I looked down (as in mountain climbing this is not advised) and didn't like what I saw. I hobbled away and informed Babuji all was not well. Babuji nodded as he did everything, very slowly and deliberately. He didn't have to rush for anyone or anything. It must be quite cool to be old - apart from the arthritis and prospect of imminent death, that is. However, there must have been some breakdown in communication because shortly afterwards a plate piled with food arrived in my room. As I picked at listlessly, one of the project workers, Mr Sisil, entered and began to comfort me.
"And that green lizard-"
"The one above the light bulb?"
"Yes. Very poisonous."
"Oh."
"Not as poisonous as a snake. Are there snakes in England?"
"Er, a few."
"Many snakes in India. Many people around here get bitten."
"Really."
"Yes. If they come to the dispensary, we say: 'Do not worry, it is not poisonous-'"
"That's OK then."
"No, you do not understand. Most snakes are poisonous but if the patient panics, it increases the spread of the poison through their blood."
"Ummm, I see."
"Yes, India is full of dangers. During the monsoon, insects get everywhere: in the food, in the bedding, in your clothes. They spread many serious diseases. Now, you must sleep. Total rest."
"Er, yes, thank you. Good night."

The next morning, I was awoken not by the sun, or even by a snake. No, it was a dawn chorus from down below. It little later I was greeted by Barabu, a lively lad from Orissa. Unfortunately he displayed an obsession with food that I my condition I found wholly offensive:
"Have you taken breakfast? Curd and coconut? That is not breakfast! Have chaval and sabje. India has many delicious foods. See the mustard plants in that field? Very tasty! You like the mustard plant? Then eat the mustard plant! Khana means 'food'. Khana means 'eat'. Khana khana! Go and have a proper breakfast.
Fortunately I knew there would be only one visit today. For today was the festival of Sarawati, goddess of Knowledge. I have racked my brains to think of an English equivalent but Carol Vorderman does not fit the bill. Barabu, Babuji and myself climbed aboard the jeep and headed to a nearby community centre. We were greeted by Munna, a project worker with the clan cut looks of Bollywood movie star. We listened to the children singing songs, offered tokens to a shrine of the goddess, and were pressed with sweets. Munna then led us away and said, "We will visit several villages. In each you will see cultural programmes put on by the children."
The Barabu piped up with some words that froze my blood, "And in each we will get food. Much food!"
"Excellent", I said. "Er, can I use your toilet?"
So off we went. At the third village, there was a makeshift marquee and tent. We were given water and a sweet extracted from sugar cane juice. It was a hot day and these were gratefully received. After a moment, Munna came up to me with a serious look on his face.
"Have you drunk the water?"
"Yes, a little."
"Be careful. The drainage is poor here and the wells are not deep enough. It is contaminated." Oh dear. Then his face brightened.
"Nevermind. Would you like to take part in the festivities?"
"A pleasure!" I said. "Can you direct me to your nearest..."
After a brief pause, Babuji, Barabu and myself ascended the stage and were garlanded with red and orange flowers. Idly I wondered if I should have some cards printed up:
Bemused Englishman

Available for weddings, birthdays and religious festivals

Will work for food and easy access to a toilet

When reseated, Munna explained the remainder of the programme: "The children will perform short plays to illustrate the importance of preventative health, land rights and education."
I don't know about you but I've always had a block when it comes to community theatre. However, the colourful scenery, cute kinds, enchanting music, plus the fact I couldn't understand a word, made the whole experience quite enjoyable. During a playlet decrying corruption in the education system, I asked Munna about the black stains around the children's eyes, blithely assuming it was some kind of make-up.
"It is cotton burnt with oil", he explained. "It prevents infections that cause blindness."
The playlets, a feast of sweets were given to the children, and we just getting up to leave when two men approached Munna. After a quick conversation, he came to us and said, "The villagers insist that we share a meal with them. It would be most rude to refuse."
"Fine!" I said. "But first I have a quick request..."
After the meal of curd and sabje, Munna took me on a tour of the area by motorcycle. He explained that 40% of the villagers' income went on treatments for diarrhea and other preventable diseases. That put my difficulties in perspective. A priority of the project was to improve hygiene and sanitation - making common water sources safe to drink from. On the way to Munna's house, we stopped at the home of a retied college principal. We discussed travel and yoga over peas and potatoes.
"Many thanks!" I said. "Now if I might ask one last question..."
We proceeded to Munna's house where I as reunited with Babuji and Barabu. Munna's wife brought us biscuits and snacks.
"Lovely!" I said. "Excuse me..."
On my return, Munna enquired if i was feeling unwell. When I confessed I was experiencing a few problems, Barabu leant forward with serious expression.
"My advice is: do not take dinner." I nodded at this sage wisdom and Barabu's face erupted into a broad grin.
"I am joking. Do take dinner! You must take dinner!"

Back at the project centre, further concern was expressed about my health. Some homeopathic medicine was recommended and a bottle brought. Homeopathic therapies are popular in India - and not just because of their cost. It may have something to do the Indian approach to knowledge. There is no one single path to the truth, instead there are a range of options to choose from - so you just go for the most appropriate one. Now, From what I knew, homeopathy was a gentler approach than conventional medicine and its remedies are highly diluted. Which did explain why the few drops of the medicine I was given kicked like a mule with its ears in a vice. Gasping for breath, I asked to see the label.
Nux Vomica

This was not a good start. Anything with a name that close to 'vomit' cannot be healthy. The reason for the forest fire on my tongue became clear when I read the next line:
91% Alcohol v/v

You could make a fortune selling this to bars in Soho.

Come morning time, I was awoken with another oversized breakfast. I went to Babuji and explained it was impossible. He took the food, placed it on the floor and gently tapped the wall with his stick. Twenty-eight little legs came scampering though the gate. Seven little tongues slobbered over the rice and daal until the concrete was clean. That's the other thing about food in India. If you won't have it, there are plenty of mouths that will.
~ Saturday, February 02, 2002
 
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Trailbuggers - Cheap Holidays in Other People's Misery.
 
Untitled

I do not know my name. I cannot remember being given one. On my occasional meetings with others, they avoid this absence as they avoid the ruin of my right eye. Their only concerns are for the birds' eggs I bring from the hills. They may have names for me but none they say to my face. In my turn I care not for their names or their stories, only the cloth they bring to trade. I suppose I could give a name to myself. I have named the trees and rivers for three days' walk. But names are only for tohers to fix and mark. Men's words are like dog piss in this respect. Without a name, I am like the darkness under the hills. A place of refuge and peril. I am myself, alone.

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