Thursday, October 29, 2009

Child Labor Bridge School Overnight

Oct. 25
Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu

With such a massive proportion of India's population living on less that $1 a day (estimates vary, but generally agree on at least 25%), the existence of child labor should come as no surprise. And before getting too self-righteous about it, I reminded myself of the situation in the US not more than a hundred years ago, when poor families also ended up sending children to work in factories under horrible conditions. That said, it is still a terrible situation, but this SAS trip gave cause for optimism. The RIDEINDIA organization was formed in 1984, initially focussing on the widespread use of children as laborers in the silk industry. At that time, more than 40,000 children worked in silk factories - today, the number is 4,000! Progress is being made. The school we visited acts as a bridge school for children between the ages of 5 and 15 who are transitioning from the world of work to school. They can't go straight to normal classes, being essentially illiterate. We visited with 2 very different groups of young students: the first group had been silk workers, and were now in school full-time, the second were still working in rock quarries, and only attended the bridge school sporadically. This little girl was particularly engaging, I thought, grubby as can be, and still works in the quarry hauling out whatever rocks she can carry in her basket after the dynamite goes off.
A huge hurdle, of course, is the situation and attitude of the parents which, in the case of quarry workers, is not good. Desperately poor, many families are essentially indentured, having borrowed money at some point (typically to pay for something like a wedding, or to support an addiction to drugs or alcohol), and then offered the work of every member of the family to pay the interest on the loan.
Apparently, a record number of these quarry children actually came to school the day we arrived - they don't see all that many Westerners, although there are regular groups of volunteers from a volunteer Jewish-American group that work with the school periodically.

India, Day 1, Chennai

Oct. 25, 2009

India - people, people, and more people! Packed into auto-rickshaws made for two, I've counted eight! Motorcycles much more common than personal cars, also carrying entire families, lots of bicycles, jam-packed buses, crowds walking, homeless randomly sleeping anywhere, in the middle of a sidewalk or tucked into a corner, so thin you don't notice them at first. Chennai (Madras) is such a hodge-podge, a true patchwork quilt of buildings. Tiny ramshackle shops are crammed right up against "real" buildings, entrances to buildings are swept and litter-free while the areas between are awash with litter; old carts, bicycles, etc. sit abandoned where they are, sometimes relaxing enough to appear almost intentional, like street-art.
On first venturing out from the ship, I was pleasantly surprised, having been so thoroughly prepared for the worst. No mobs of beggars greeted me or followed me down the street, only mild haggling was involved with our taxi driver (he did, however, ask for more than agreed on at the end of the trip - we just didn't pay it), and my feet and shoes looked none the worse for wear at the end of the day - the layer of grime was easily removed. Air pollution here is bad - anyone with even a slight tendency toward asthma is resorting to inhaler use. Even our sealed cabins on the ship are affected - I have had trouble sleeping with the strong smell of diesel and soot in my nostrils.

To live happily in this environment, it looks to me like Indian people operate on the philosophy that you put energy and care into creating your own personal environment of beauty and perfume that goes with you everywhere. So, every woman we see is carefully groomed, dressed in colorful saris or kurtas (tunic tops with loose-fitting pants), adorned with jewelry, and often wearing thick aromatic braids of jasmine in their hair. I never get tired of watching the women here, and feel a bit sad that we've become so careless when it comes to personal appearance (or, more accurately, I have!)

A word about the animals here, in particular the cows. Don't know if you can make it out, but the animals pictured below eating garbage are actually young calves. We've seen goats in a number of countries apparently acting as the first level of garbage disposal, but this is the first time I've seen cows in the same role. They're not getting much nutritional value, judging by the jutting ribs. My conclusion is that being deemed "holy" in India doesn't entitle you to much, certainly not extra food.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1 Day to Chennai

Oct. 22, 2009

First impression of India, before even getting there, supplied by the ship's crew. They're busy taping down cardboard to completely cover the carpet. Apparently, they have to protect it all from the filth of India. We've been warned to wear our least valuable footwear, with the idea that we will want to throw them away once we've left. Wow!
One thing this journal lacks so far is observations of typical behaviors, activities, the pace of living. For instance, in Ghana the foot traffic is constant and omni-present - people walk everywhere, slowly but surely making their way, most often with huge loads balanced confidently on their heads - firewood, wide metal bowls of water, stacks of eggs, fresh fruit to sell, you name it. Our guide there told us they start practicing with empty containers at a young age - 3 or 4.
In South Africa I also saw a fair amount of walkers, mostly men, but also a lot more cars on the road. Since it's so much more developed than a place like Ghana, there were more traditional "business hours" so there was an ebb and a flow. Not so much walking in Mauritius, lots of cars, and the locals packed the public buses, which were free to students and seniors. Did I already say that somewhere? It'll be interesting to see what the story is in India.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mauritius, Tropical Paradise

Anticipation was high coming in to Mauritius. The crossing from South Africa was long (6 days) and it was mid-terms for the students, so many were looking forward to a real break, and what better place? The first view didn't disappoint - classic volcanic island dramatic landscape, protected harbor with new, nicely developed waterfront shopping area (modeled after the port we just left behind in Cape Town!) We were ready for island paradise!

I started right off with a bang by going with the SAS City Orientation tour to the Botanical Garden in Pamplemousse. Alley's idea of heaven, you know. On disembarking from the bus, birds sang out an enthusiatic welcome, and our guides got started immediately introducing us to strange and wonderful tropical species of trees, many of which I've never seen before - Jackfruit, Sausage trees, the Talipot Palm with leaves easily up to 3 meters across(!), which only blooms dramatically once after 60 years, upon which it heads into a slow decline and death. What a drama queen!

I was just as delighted with the amazonian water lilies (also gigantic, with long wicked thorns on the underside to discourage nippy fishies) and the lotus water garden, sniffing crushed leaves from the camphor trees and admiring the yellow fruits of the nutmeg trees along the way. This was on the Dutch East Indies Spice trading route after all! Rubber trees I've seen before, but the wax palm, though diminutive, was new, and I never get tired of huge banyan and baobab trees - Lovely!
The rest of the city tour was unremarkable, and I won't bore you with that. That evening, a Dutch friend, Carola, was celebrating her birthday, so a small group of us went out to a fine dinner (octopus curry - yum!) on the waterfront, singing both Happy Birthday AND Lang zal ze leven for good measure. Sure have enjoyed the regular opportunity to speak Dutch on this voyage - who would have thought? The day was rounded off by a festive water taxi ride back to the ship, with an entertaining side-trip to one of the numerous Chinese fishing boats in the harbor to drop off a number of Indonesian workers. They were clearly struck by some of the lovely long-legged blond students in our SAS group. Cute!

Day 2

Île des Deux Cocos trip

After a quick (1 1/2 hour) drive down the well-maintained (in stark contrast to Ghana) highway running right through the center of the island, the forty of us participating in this trip were loaded on to a couple of glass-bottomed boats for the 5-minute ride out to the tiny Île des Deux Cocos. I was trip leader (which, by the way, entitles me to a refund of 1/2 the cost of the trip!), so I had lots of gear to carry. On the boat dock, I got so excited by the crystal clear waters and the tropical fish we could already spot, that I fumbled for my camera, lost my balance for a minute and then, plop! dropped my towel in the drink! It sank immediately, a bright blue mass clearly visible 4 feet down, eventually rescued by one of the boat chauffeurs. Did I feel stupid!!
However, the rest of the day was idyllic - beautiful white sand and black volcanic rock, welcoming drinks, snorkeling in the nearby Marine Reserve among the coral reef which circles the island. Lots of fish - zebra, parrot, angel, trumpet and more. The coral was beautifully shaped, some spreading like fungus in the forest, others a mass of delicate branches where the fish seemed to be playing hide and seek. Sadly, the coral was uniformly colorless, grey or white, indicating that it's dead or dying. Very sobering!
Quick side-note: one of the young children on the bus taught me a new verse to "The Drunken Sailor" (we're trying to think of appropriate punishments for some of the students who get drunk to the point of alcohol-poisoning in port). It goes like this:

Now, THAT would be a punishment!

Once back at the ship, Kathleen (fellow staff) and I went back out with two goals - find Wifi and check out the local Hindu celebration of Divali (Mauritius is predominantly Hindu), the festival of lights. It looked grim at first for internet - the only internet cafe was PACKED with students and no more Wifi connects were available (this was a first for the poor little cafe). So we wandered through the waterfront, which was full of locals, live music, dancing (Indian) and lights. Fun! There was free Wifi at a spot on the sidewalk in front of a cafe, but it just felt wrong to be sitting in that row of SAS folks staring intently at a glimmering screen with such a rich cultural experience happening all around us, so I quickly packed up the computer and watched the singing and dancing instead. Much better!

Once that was over, we made our way to the nearby 5 star hotel, where free Wifi was available in the lobby. Over drinks, I was able to ichat with David AND Skype Dustin and Courtney - hooray!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Catching up on S. Africa

Oct. 5
De Oude Meul Guesthuis
Stellenbosch, S. Africa

I'm here in S. African wine country with Stepanka and Kathleen, friends from the ship. My first impressions are that the country is beautiful, complex, and a terrible mess. However, the feeling of the moment is, at last, a truly lekker cappucino!! Our guest house is fine, but I think I'd happily spring for the extra 100R ($12) next time to stay down the street in the Stellenbosch Hotel.
Since yesterday was Sunday, we weren't able to rent bikes and the wineries were all closed. So we did a bit of the town historical tour (Cape Dutch architecture) and then found a lovely place, The Wijnhuis, where we were able to do a wine tasting with a delicious cheese plate! (We miss good cheese on the ship - security won't allow us to take cheese on board.) Later, we had dinner at the Fish Market, which was also great - nice atmosphere, with one of those conveyor-style sushi thingamabobs. Sushi in S. Africa - who would have thought?

Here are some first impressions of this area: in regards to Cape Dutch architecture, I find it simply pretty, plain, very Calvinistic, not surprisingly. The whole region seems pretty fiercely Afrikaans, with the University touting itself as the only Afrikaans language university in the area (or the country?). It was also interesting to hear Arno, the owner of our guesthouse, tell me that he thinks Dutch sounds much harsher than Afrikaans. Maybe so. I did find the Afrikaans people to be somewhat loud and boorish (boerish?? :)
When we were discussing a route to take through the vineyards on our bicycles, Arno got a concerned look on his face, advising that the direction we had originally mapped out was not safe, running as it were too close to a township. And since the crime stats here are so high, we, of course, had to heed his advice. So, we took a very short ride out towards the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, stopping after only a few kilometers for a wine-tasting and cellar tour. I was having some kind of strange, unhappy anxiety attack (just worried about being away from David for so long, I think), so I didn't feel like drinking. It's just good I did the tasting in town earlier, so I at least knew that I'm not a fan of pinotage, the only truly S. African grape cultivar.

Oct. 8, 8 am
on the dock next to the Nelson Mandela Gateway
Cape Town
Kim wrote me this morning, wondering why my blog entries are so short. Thinking more about it, I realize that simple recitatations of my little 'adventures' just aren't all that interesting to me, and I haven't felt like I had the time or inspiration, honestly, to do more. I almost feel like my thought processes don't function on their own - I need someone to bounce them off of. Since David and I have finally been able to connect here on a daily basis, some of my thoughts about all this are starting to take shape, albeit a bit vague at first.
So, what is driving S. Africa and where is she going? Our views from the past 6 days are so fragmented and obscured by typical tourist activities, but at least I've got some basics. This is a strikingly beautiful area: awe-inspiring mountains, white sand coastlines, fertile valleys, abundant flora and fauna. Also, it's resource rich - diamonds, gold, bauxite, etc. All this results in centuries of land-grabbing attempts by the Portugese, Dutch, and British. With the aboriginal bushmen and all other African blacks exploited and enslaved as just another "resource" of the area. So, now that there's at least SOME attempt to recognize the rights of the majority black population, it all becomes very complicated. White residents complain that "their" blacks (they really do say this!) are lazy, don't want to work, and feel they should just be given land. As opposed to blacks coming here from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, all of whom, by account of various white Afrikaners, are industrious and hard-working. Reminds me of comments I heard over the years about Native American people living on reservations. It does seem to me that, no matter what the setting, simple "hand-outs" don't work. Centuries of illiteracy, poverty, poor self-esteem, forced break-up of family and community units require much more than land and money to rebuild. Education, training, emphasis on family and shared culture would be a better starting place. And working to generate improvement initiatives from within the community itself.
A student at dinner last night told me about his day spent working on a house being constructed in a township by Habitat for Humanity. The home was being built for a deaf couple with 4 children. The local coordinator of the project is from the township and still lives in a shack with a leaking roof, in spite of the fact that he has worked on homes for dozens of his neighbors. According to the student, this black African feels there are just too many whose needs are greater than his own. Certainly doesn't sound like he's lazy or lacking in motivation. Could be the exception, I suppose. But I think there's a lot of reason for hope here. It'll just take time, patience, and compassion.

I learned some interesting facts on yesterday's safari at Inverdoorn in the Kahoo Wilderness. First, there is a cheetah rehabilitation program in effect because male cheetah's have defective sperm, making successful breeding very difficult. Female cheetahs need to be slim and active to ovulate, but males kill off sperm cells if exercised too much!! Hmmmmm.....
There is a phenomenon in Africa called "canned lions", where lion cubs are raised in small cages to maturity so they can be briefly released into a controlled area and "hunted" for sport. This is illegal, so lions rescued from this must be fed and protected - the lions we saw on our safari were 3 of these, and can't ever be re-released to the wild.
Giraffes eat the leaves of the sweet acacia tree, which is covered with 2 to 3 inch long, nasty-looking thorns. The giraffe has some kind of amazingly well-adapted long tongue to deal with this.
By the way, ostrich burger is delicious! I hope most of you can see all my pictures on Facebook - posting to this blog is just too time-consuming, I'm afraid!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cape Town, S. Africa

What a beautiful morning to greet Cape Town! Don't know if you can make it out, but the new football (soccer) stadium built to host the 2010 World Cup is visible behind me - quite the landmark! I'm looking forward to hearing strange-sounding Dutch like language, cycling through wine country, and enjoying the show of spring wildflowers on Table Mountain. Exciting!