Posted by: lilyhamburger | November 22, 2009

new worlds open up

This is one of those moments where I cannot think how to write about the people, places, and concepts I have seen, thought about and encountered since I last tried to capture my life in words. I feel like I have finally delved into the meat of this experience, and life seems to have unfolded hidden layers over these last few weeks. I feel like I live in India, I am more Indian, I understand what is going on around me, and little exotic nuances are becoming norms (I am still thrilled every time I see a camel, don’t get me wrong).
Things that have happened here in Gujarat will only make sense in chronological order, but I hate to jip you of details and only write the headlines of what happened, so get ready for a longy! If you’re not up for it, here’s an outline:
1. the fun, interactive, moving ways in which I learned about international development and social change at orientation – and how I bonded with the other American/Canadian peeps 
a. topics discussed: untouchability and the human rights atrocities therein; the women’s movement in India and gender and development; globalization
b. most incredible site visit to school and women’s group in villages near Ahmedabad, organized/led by Navsarjan, an AJWS partner NGO which focuses on Dalit (untouchable) rights.
2. Goodbyes in Ahmedabad:
a. Tour of the old city at night
b. My hindi teacher is a riot. Sunita ji tells her to lose weight.
c. I got super sick from south Indian food made by adorable people from the university
3. EXCITING: the NGO partners join us at the Ashram for the last 2 days of orientation
a. All the amazing places my friends are going to work!
a. Day 1 travel to meet his family and sleepover (!)
a. Saying goodbye to my new friends and how awesome our support staff is!
b. Mayur Bai continues to be the smiliest cutest man on the sub continent
c. I think sleeper trains are the shit
d. I am in love with all of India
e. Arrive at sunrise and settle in
f. Health education session in a village
g. Visiting rural school
h. Dharampur and ARCH
i. I am living a dream. One that is nestled deep in my soul that I didn’t even really know was there….?

Ok, so here I am, sitting in my new home – when was the last time I stayed in one place for 9 months?! Backtracking to a week ago at orientation is like travelling to another life. I have seen and learned so many new things since then that I can almost feel myself expanding as we speak/I type. Maybe that’s just the chapatti… Anyways, orientation got serious ya’ll. I felt like I was in school for everything that I wanted to learn – international development, social justice, advocacy and social change, non-profit management, India!, volunteerism/ethics, cross cultural communication/exchange, etc. But it was cooler than school! We had “sessions” which were led by AJWS staff and also by fellows which addressed various topics (including Judaism and group bonding stuff), and each sessions was super interactive and creative and FUN. (I led one on globalization and development with one of the other fellows, Toma. We created a scenario and had our fellow fellows act out an international debate over the building of a teleportation device.)

Many of the things we learned about came together when speakers from the Gujarati NGO community came and spoke to us about specific issues. One lady came to talk about the women’s movement and she spoke about it in the context of Indian history as well as contemporary development theories. One of the things that stuck with me from her talk was the concept that empowering women in rural India gave way not only to women’s rights but also development. Starting in the 1980s women began meeting together and taking on community issues such as drinking water or improving schools, and these things started happening. In the process of encouraging economic development, women were being socially empowered. They were mutual. Today, however, the “development sector,” which is based more on the end-goal of economic growth, has co-opted the empowerment of women into a new paradigm that de-emphasizes social change and overcoming oppression. She said women can been freed economically through microfinance, etc, but still not be socially free.

A leader from the Dalit – untouchable – community came and told us about the caste system and how he got started fighting for Dalit rights. If you can imagine the most horrible things people can do to each other – physically and emotionally – that is what upper caste people do to Dalits even today. In modern India many people are in denial about discrimination and untouchability, but it is still taught to children by their parents and reinforced by teachers in government schools. Equality and non-discrimination is in the Indian constitution, but it is not enforced. What complicates the issue is that the caste system has a religious foundation and a Dalit person might spend their life cleaning toilets – for a mild example – and not think twice about it because they believe that they deserve to be there spiritually as well as socially.
Anyway, things are complicated, but we got to visit some of the things that Martin Bai’s NGO is doing. I got to visit one of the many schools that Navsarjan has set up for Dalit children in villages near Ahmedabad. The kids are 10-12 (5-7th standard) and they were so amazingly adorable and clearly bright. We met with the teachers (all from Dalit communities in Gujarat, all trained by Navsarjan), and then with the students. The kids – after the cutest most incredible edible song and dance show – asked us questions like “Do you have discrimination in your country?” and “Why did you care to visit our school?” and when I asked through 2 translators (English to Hindi to Gujarati) what they want to do to fight discrimination they said “Get an education.” That afternoon I also got to meet with a women’s group started by Navsarjan and they told us the story of how upper caste men did horrible things to Dalit women who were washing clothes too high up stream according to caste rules. All the women in the village banded together to fight for justice – in that case in the courtroom – and then continued to advocate for drinking water for their whole village. They got water piped in from the gov’t and when it came no caste discrimination occurred at the pump ( historically Dalit women could not touch their bucket to the well water so they were at the mercy of other castes to fetch water and give it to them without touching their buckets.) These women were a colorful (literally) and rowdy bunch, beaming with smiles and laughing loudly, all the while shielding their faces from the men with their saris out of engrained modesty. One of the things Navsarjan provided was a camera and photo printing, and we got to see pics of them picketing for their water and talking to government officials. It was the most brightly colored photo I have ever seen of a political conversation.
So there is an old city in the center of the city. The architecture is kuku and there are all these secret passageways and abandoned mansions and cozy little corners of apartments. The coolest part of my wandering around there at night – besides the brightly colored birdfeeder towers in each neighborhood – were the musicians who play on top of one of the darwaza s (gates) to the old city. It’s a tradition centuries old, dating back to the time when the music served as a warning to people that the gates were closing for the night. 11pm. The lower castes lived outside the gates. We also saw the king’s tomb and women weren’t allowed inside. We walked around outside where the queens and other subordinates were interred and we were guided by a dude and his son who claim to be descendents of said king.
There is no way to sufficiently describe my Hindi teacher. Let’s just say it’s hard to see around her when she’s standing at the blackboard, and she loves to talk about herself. She has lived in the US for a while – she taught Hindi at Columbia and Stoneybrook – and she tells us about a new profession she’s had every day almost – poet, journalist, screenwriter, singer…. Towards the end of our classes she became “famous” and told us about her fan mail. Anyways, she insisted on having us over to her flat for brunch. Her husband is still in the US but her 2 daughters are with her. They are 11 and almost 14. “We are 2-country people,” she says. Anyway highlights of that cultural exchange came from her nephews who are our age who came over just as we were trying to sneak out the door. The first chatted us up about his studies in London and then taught us Punjabi dance moves to Indian MTV in the background. His brother then showed up with a guitar and belted out American songs he knew such as Radiohead’s “Creep” and he was not afraid to improvise!
Second important event was a wonderful meal with a family we know through AJWS and their cute cute mother who is 82 (nothing on Ruth!). Because we all bowed and touched her feet she loved us and showed us all her gods – the in-house temple.
India hospitality is irrefutable. I ate enough to last the rest of the fellowship at those meals!
You could feel the excitement mounting in the air at Kochrab Ashram. We made welcome signs and planned sessions, but we also were anticipating the moment of departure from the safe haven of our American orientation bubble into the reality of what we’d all signed up to do – go out into the great expanse of India all on our own?! What?!? To me, though, the moment of transition was the one I’d been waiting for.
I can’t tell you how exciting it felt when we were all sitting around Gandhi’s library conference table with our NGO counterparts at our sides. It became this bigger picture of all these incredible people doing incredible work to improve lives and save lives and repair the world – all seated in a room together. Wow. Here is a list of what people are up to:
1. Toma will be working for SNEHA in Mumbai. They do public health – services and ed – with people in the famous slums there. It sounds like amazing work and one project Toma will be working on is a mobile clinic.
2. Dave is going to Mumbai also with Sankalp, a rehab and vocational training place for IV drug users. He’ll continue a previous WPF project on computer skills for rehabbing users.
3. Alana is working for Drishti, a media collective NGO in Ahmedabad. They are SO COOL: they train people in marginalized groups – including youth – to use cameras and edit their own films. They use the films to education and mobilize the communities they come from, as well as distribute to outsiders. They partner with a lot of NGOs around India.
4. Caroline and Gabe are both going to work for KMVS, a women’s empowerment group in Bhuj, Kuchh. This org does a TON on development in Bhuj.
5. Talia is going to Pune in Maharashtra to work for EcoNet. Its name is a little misleading because their work is mostly about economic empowerment of non-pastoral nomads. The environment obviously has a lot to do with it, but it’s really a complex issue of cultural shift due to globalization!
6. Marni will continue a survey of sex-workers for Vikalp in Baroda. Vikalp is a sex-worker support NGO with off-shooting organizations to support gays and transgendered people. They are NOT socially accepted in India.
7. Andrew is also going to Bhuj and he’ll be working with Hunarshala, an international NGO (in this region) that works to rehabilitate communities struck by natural disasters. (Kutchh was hit by the earthquake a few years ago). Hunarshala is invested in creating green and beautiful places for people to rebuild their lives, and Andrew’s project has to do with teaching entrepreneurship to artisans by getting them involved in construction.
8. Hannan is going to work for Saathi, an organization that is trying to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in India. There are so many programs up and running and Hannan will be in their newest office in Nagpur, smack in the middle of nowhere India.
So we did some sessions about the expectations we all have of each other and some get-to-know you stuff. We talked about different work environments in US v. India, and some practicalities of the jobs. Mayur Bhai, my dude from ARCH, struggled the most with English. He told me he could understand about 80% of what was said and he could speak about 50% of what was on his mind. I told him his English was fine and he replied, “But can’t speak frankly.” We were able to bond a little anyway, mostly because this man has the most adorable, crooked teeth, happy little smile that he flashes unhesitantly. He is a small, dorky dude with glasses and a comb over. He’s got the nerd giggle, too  We just smiled our way through the language barrier…Here is the best part: in the evening of the first night of being together, there was some free time before dinner and everyone was awkwardly deciding what to do with each other. Mayur Bhai had told me that his family lived near Ahemedabad so I thought I was off the hook for awkward hang out time. Welllllll… when I was giving him some sweets to take to his kids, he suggested that I come along! (I’m pretty sure that he had invited me earlier but I hadn’t understood what he meant.) So, I packed an overnight bag (including TP!) and we rickshaw-ed to the bus station reviewing his kids and wife’s names: Achal, Riddi, and Beena.
On the 1.5 hour bus ride to his hometown of Nadiad, I felt so exhilarated by the fact that I was out on an adventure on my own for the first time since arriving in this foreign place. The bus was my favorite thing on earth in that moment, and there was really nothing special about it. But it was so colloquially Indian, and that’s what I think I loved. We made small talk and had a few silences, then Mayur said, “I have an idea. Posters about malaria for the health education. Can you do this?” And we got to talking about work. ARCH does health ed in villages (where they need audio visual and visual materials because people are often illiterate), but also lots of science classes for older students and child development for the tots. They treat patients at the clinic on the campus where I’ll be living, but I haven’t quite figured out who the patients are.
We arrived in Nadiad around 8 and took another rickshaw to his flat. It was in a quiet residential neighborhood and a 10 year old in looped pig tail braids came trotting down the stairs, beaming, to greet her “Abu.” His son, almost 14, spoke perfect English, and ran out to a birthday party. The scene was so familiar – asking mom and dad for money, arguing to get out of staying home for dinner with the unexpected guest. Riddi could translate for her mom but I think Beena Ben knew some English but was too shy/unpracticed to say anything. She and her neighbor laughed at my puri (fried pancake thingies) rolling skills, and then the 2 parents, Riddi and I sat down – on the kitchen floor – for dinner. It was a typical Gujarati meal: a lot of small portions of many things –my fav! We had beans, subji (stewed veggies – this happened to be potatoes), some sweet floury thing w raisins that I ate way too much of, pakoras, curry (spicy!), and then rice at the end of the meal. They had filtered water, hallelujah!
After dinner we all crammed into a little closet where they had a computer and I showed them pics of my family on facebook  The showed me photos on the computer from a recent ceremony for a young cousin/nephew – an Indian bar mitzvah?! Head shaving was the central event…but everyone was decked out in colors!!! I slept on the floor of the main room of the flat while the 2 kids slept in the bed that had doubled as a couch earlier. The sink for teeth brushing was outside on a beautiful-ish patio. It was funny to see a toothbrush holder tacked to the outside wall of a home and to brush my teeth under a sea of stars. We awoke around 5:30/6am and took turns in the shower room. The kids donned the most adorable school uniforms (Riddi’s short skirt was an unusual sight) and ate and scrambled to catch the school bus – another familiar scene  I was still full from the night before but, as I have come to learn time and time again, there is no refusing food in an Indian home. Since I shook my head to puri, I was served cereal. Great, I thought, frosted flakes! No, no. These were not frosted flakes. They were masala flakes – that’ll get your taste buds awake in the morning! Phew!
In the morning, back to Ahmedabad, where I actually felt a new level of excitement from my adventure. A few final orientation sessions and then packing and send-offs. Mayur Bhai and I left around midnight in a taxi for the train station. I had so much stuff! Our train left at 1:30am. While we waited in an air conditioned waiting room among sleeping people, he said to me, “I am glad to have a friend like you. I think I have gotten not just volunteer but also a friend.” More smiles.
India has the largest train network in the world, according to Mayur. My AJWS advisors laughed when they told me that Mayur Bhai had purchased 3rd class air-conditioned tickets for our train ride. This is the lowest AC class, but not the lowest class of all, and they usually travel 2nd AC I guess. Well, it was AWESOME. The train was so long I felt like we walked a mile (carrying everything I am taking for 9 months!) before reaching our coach. There were 9 beds (3 stacked vertically) in each little section, and dudes in white uniforms came around passing out sets of sheets to new passengers. The sheets say “Western Railway Authority” or something like that, which I thought was cool… We stuffed our luggage under the bed, and as soon as our tickets were checked I was out cold.
Mayur Bhai woke me at 6 as the sun was coming up out my window. Someone was sawing major logs nearby. There was a flushing toilet on the coach and a little sink. When we got out at the station in Valsad, the central city of Valsad district of Gujarat, Said Bhai was waiting with the ARCH jeep. It was about a 30-muinute ride to the campus, on a state highway. The roads in Gujarat are notoriously good because the CM here loves development, particularly transportation. I am so thrilled to be out of the traffic and pollution of the city! We passed little villages and roadside shops along the way, and civilization thinned out as we went along towards Dharampur.
ARCH was started by a husband and wife – who are on vacation until the 2nd of December – and they love gardens. So the first thing I noticed was the little plots of flowers and gravel paths all over. The campus is basically two courtyards – one focused around the dispensary and the other around libraries, offices, and classrooms. There are mango trees everywhere!! I can’t wait for mango season – starts in May I think. All the maintenance and management of the grounds are done in-house. Many of the staff stay in bigger beautiful houses across the garden from the main campus, and then there is a girls school on the grounds, too. There is a German girl woking there – and more English-speaking Germans coming I believe – who are doing environmental education. They have built a solar power system (not PV panels but these big reflective dishes on the roof), and are practicing solar cooking methods with the girls… I can’t wait to learn more about that! Behind my building is the kitchen and dining hall, where Umaa Ben and another woman cook for residential staff and also the 3-5 year olds who come to school here every day. (Yes, I am in heaven.) Umaa has the biggest smile and I can’t wait to learn more Gujrati and befriend her.
My room is on the second floor of that second court yard on an outdoor hall with 3 other rooms used for volunteer housing. I have my own bathroom with a western toilet!! There are 2 beds so I use one for sleeping (mosquito net stays on) and the other as a couch. I have a little sink and a coffee table and 2 chairs. When I opened by backpack I found a birthday present from my American friends – a beautiful orange wall hanging – which I will have to find a way to hang on my white washed cement walls. To the front of my room I see the roof and mango trees, and out the back I see mango trees and the top of the dining hall area. It’s quite sweet.
When we arrived I had a moment to rest and settle in, and then I went down for chai and breakfast. Every morning it has been this grainy mush – a bit drier than oatmeal – with some dried fruit/peanuts and a little hot chillies mixed in. And chai, which is always made with milk and lots of sugar! Then we were off to work! I accompanied Mayur Bhai and Sarad Bhai to Girnata, a village where they were doing a health education session for the first time. Sarad is the supervisor of all the village health workers who are selected by their villages and then trained by ARCH. Gongu Ben (Ben= femal sign of respect) was the village health worker there and she gathered people for the session. After it started, the men all left and the women, babies toddling all over the place, sat at attention. Mayur and Sarad set up a little movie theater on the porch of a mud house. They hung blankets to block the sun and put up a screen against a wall. Then Mayur gave a presentation with slides about primary diseases and basic sanitation practices. The primary school children were also brought in from the school house to listen, and I sat in the back with the teachers. My job was to take pictures of the event. At the end everyone practiced washing their hands, and each woman was given “tooth powder” that looked like it had been made in 1952….who knows…
The houses were clustered in a few areas, and I walked around to a few clusters. There were fields in between. I met the traditional healer who was watching TV outside with his pants undone. He didn’t want to come to the health session. As in other villages I’ve been to, the kids seem to rule. They outnumber their parents and they are far more expressive and gregarious. I could have died I was surrounded by so much cuteness!!
On the way back we stopped for lunch at a substation dispensary run by a man who I think I Peter Pan incarnate. He was helping girls with their homework when we arrived, but he is not a teacher. The dispensary where he lives and works is right next to a school and he seemed like Santa Claus to all the kids. He took me around and introduced me to the classes that were in session as others were preparing for a big event when state officials visit the school next week. They looked at me with wonder in their eyes and I practiced saying in Gujrati “Mara nam Lily chhe,” while they were asked to repeat my name. I saw some students practicing a dance for the upcoming event on the way out…cool!
The next day, after a morning of looking at some of the health ed materials and practicing Gujrati with some men in the offices, I went to another school to observe some activities with first graders (standard 1). The primary school teacher from ARCH, Pooja Ben, and the upper school science teacher came and there we met Ramesh Bhai who is the ARCh teacher stationed out there at Mama Bhacha (uncle nephew). The kids were tested individually for their reading, writing, and math skills because they are going to group them accordingly for the science activities. The point of this program is to teach science and math skills with alternative methods but also to get youngsters interested in school. That was for sure taking place! They had an animated Gujrati teaching tool that was playing on the computer while the testing was happening. (Testing was Pooja and Ramesh asking questions and having kids solve problems or write on their little slate chalk boards – so cute!) Things were pretty rowdy at the school because it was Saturday and school was out. They have a half day on Saturdays and then they clean. It’s a boarding school and there is one family that looks after hundreds of kids! The kids do the cooking and cleaning with little supervision. When the testing was finished it was singing and dancing time! I got some performances in my honor and then we learned some new ones. I taught “head shoulders knees and toes” to about 50 kids ages 5-13. Fun. Said Bhai was again our driver and he took me around the village and we communicated somehow with his 25 English words and my 10 Gujrati…he’s a nice dude.
As we drove back through fields and over rivers and past tribal homes of all shapes and structural designs, I thought about all the different perspectives I am seeing. My own, Mayur’s and ARCH’s, the kids’, the villagers’, city folk’s, AJWS’s, Sunita Ji’s, etc. As I tried to explain when one of the teachers asked me at breakfast today “what is your philosophy?” (whoa) I said that one of the reasons I am so happy to be in India is because when you see these different perspectives, you not only learn about your own, but you see the underlying humanity in all of them. I feel like recognizing these various ways of living and philosophies about life, I get a little closer to understanding the big questions. In the car rides, as my new co-workers babble on in a language I do not know, I marvel at how happy I am to be in this foreign land, and how somehow I feel like I am fulfilling a dream that I had not really expressly identified for myself. This is so great.



  1. Lil,

    You are the dream! It is all within you, your great spirit and openness to experience. someday these notes you are writing will be the basis of a great book, perhaps a novel. I will ask you to sign my copy. i will put it on a special shelf in my house, next to alex’s drawings.

    hope the tp supply is going to last long enough…..

    Love, Larry

    • wow, lar. i am honored to be put on that shelf….i think ill have to get writing! love you.

  2. all so amazing and fascinating!! i hope you have a fun and productive week, and a great birthday in a few days! thinking of you lots.

  3. beautiful, Lil! I am so happy you found the gift and I look forward to reading more! call me!

    • dude can you email me that list of blogs you collected? ill link everyones…and can you tell me how to link ;)? thanks love! hope you get a stove soon!

  4. Hi Lily, I made it to the end of your post! wow, things sound so amazing there. It sounds like you have been learning a lot, and that you will be doing very meaningful work. I can’t wait to hear more!


    • miss you pissa! thanks for reading…how you doin?

  5. Lily this post makes me ready to go back to school for ID and travel the world! I can feel your passion, i loved the part about the kids and traveling without the group for the first time. the occupations of the other people in your group are so multi-faceted, and exciting. Its fascinating how everything is interconnected, the water, the ag, microfinance, disease, religion, the land, the vulnerability, gender roles, familial roles…the global economy, the psychology of the culture…how complex! yet the day to day of it all is step by step finding your niche and becoming “uniquely indian-american” in the way that you think about the big picture! so proud of you!

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