I loved the coffee mugs at our New Delhi hotel, and yes, they’d sell me four. But no way they’d fit in my carry-on luggage. So I asked at the concierge, and they produced a black box with a big ‘Lamson Black Label Champagne’ logo. They bubble wrapped the mugs; taped and taped the outside of the box; printed a huge label, and sent Sonu and I to the Post Office. We waited in line, only to be told we needed to have it ‘wrapped’, and that they needed photocopies of my passport. A vendor was set-up outside on the street, and the package man hand-stitched a fabric cover. We used a marker to write a crude ‘from’ address. Then to another nearby vendor for the passport photocopy, and back to the counter. They want to tape the passport copy, photo and all, to the outside of the box. What about identify theft? In the end, I decide to just go for it, paying about $27 in postage. The package was delivered to my door this morning, the first day after I arrived home and just 10 days in-transit. And I’m most pleased with my mugs!
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
When Sonu visited me in California last year, he’d never been on an airplane or seen the ocean. Now he’s done both in his home country, too, a half a world away! We flew to and from Mumbai together, and made a side trip by air to Pune. We stayed on Juhu Beach in Mumbai, and the two of us walked the sand a number of times. Sonu is attracted to the ocean, and so am I. I had trouble getting him out of the water in California. He and I both now say that the ocean is our ‘church’.
We don’t take our crazy, improbable friendship for granted. We’re both still amazed that we ever met, how compatible we are, and how close we’ve become. Maybe he’s like a son, but it doesn’t feel like that. Sonu says we’re brothers! One thing for sure is that we’re very thankful. It’s never easy to say ‘until next time’ (we prefer that to goodbye). We don't have a plan, but we know that we’ll see each other again. And meanwhile there’s WhatsApp and Skype. What a world we live in! I absolutely can’t wait to see photos and videos of that beautiful baby!
Monday, October 19, 2015
The Sahara Aalhad Care Home is located in Pune, a 30-minute flight from Mumbai. And Sonu and I traveled there for the day to see the work of this center, which is funded by Keep a Child Alive (KCA), the New York-based charity co-founded by Alicia Keys where I serve on the board of directors. Many of you have ‘followed’ me when I visited KCA-funded programs in Uganda and South Africa. There were ‘angels’ there doing incredible, inspiring things. And I now know that there are committed, compassionate ‘angels’ in India, too!
Elizabeth Samson Selhore is the ‘archangel’, the leader of this amazing haven that provides crisis intervention and interim care for the poorest of the poor. That’s Elizabeth on the left, standing with ‘angels’ Cedric, Hakumat and Aarti, and there is a nutritionist, and doctors, nurses and other care workers who truly save lives every day. More than 90 percent of staff members are prior clients.
While the 30-bed Care Home is the headquarters, Sahara Aalhad also has another smaller clinic in the very poor Yerwada community, and conducts outreach ‘camps’ throughout the slums, using a small ambulance vehicle for transport. HIV/AIDS and Extrapulmonary Tuberculosis (TB) are the two most frequent and serious diagnoses. Some people suffer from both at once, and together they are a truly deadly combination.
As with most every program supported by KCA, Sahara Aalhad takes a ‘holistic’ approach, addressing the need for clean drinking water and nutrition in addition to providing testing, diagnosis, treatment and medication. We saw the distribution of water purification kits, and nutrition packages that included lentils and fortified wheat. Sahara Aalhad works closely with existing local resources, including staffing an in-hospital team. They also provide psychosocial resources, to help address underlying poverty and hopelessness.
Much of it was not easy to see. There were patients who were extremely malnourished; had skin lesions covering their bodies, and who had lost their sight or the ability to walk. We heard stories about rape, sexual slavery, and child abuse, and there are countless widows and orphans. Setting sanitary considerations aside, I shook and held their hands, and looked into so many eyes. Again and again, despite so much suffering, I saw the look of hope.
In addition to providing hope, counsel and treatment, there is a strong emphasis on opportunity and the future. That sets this program apart, I think, and helps give people the dignity and sense of purpose to pull themselves up. We met a young man of 21 who has moved beyond the stigma of his HIV Positive status to attend University and start his own Waste Management business, while sharing a home with two younger orphan boys who are also in school. A young widow had received a micro loan to start her own vegetable business, and man was assisted in establishing a plant nursery. Meanwhile, Sahara Aalhad also helps with basics such as identification cards and bank accounts.
Partnership is the basis of all of the work. Procter and Gamble provides water purification kits, and drugs come mostly from government sources. They partner with Saahasee, another NGO (non- governmental organization) to provide women with instruction in spoken English language, computer training and sewing. And women come together at the Care Home to make bracelets that are sold online through the Mary Fisher “100 Good Deeds” Foundation. What a great concept; check it out at 100gooddeeds.org. Sahara Aalhad also raises funds from the local community, often through specific ‘pleas’ involving client stories posted on the charity’s Facebook page.
We met people who were benefitting from all of these programs. When I looked into their eyes I saw purpose, and pride, and even joy. Seeing happy, joyful children was particularly heartening. We attended a birthday party at the Yerwada clinic, where I was asked to dance with the kids. So, of course, I did! A couple of the boys really ‘rocked’ my sunglasses! The situation is sobering. But seeing the great difference KCA and Sahara Aalhad are making here was, in the end, joyful for me and Sonu, too.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Sonu and I were both immediately struck by the differences in Mumbai. Everything seems more modern and cleaner, more vibrant and cosmopolitan, in India’s financial capital. This is all in contrast to the formality, tradition and overwhelming historical significance of Delhi, India’s center of government. There are cranes and new construction everywhere here, and no shortage of 40 and 50-storey buildings. The variety of architecture ranges from Gothic and Victorian influence of the British, to art deco and modern. And there is a dramatic new cable suspension bridge that reminded Sonu and I of when we drove over the new San Francisco Bay Bridge extension together last year. We saw all of that, but we also saw the pockets of slums at every glance, often directly adjacent to luxury highrises. And that was both sobering and intriguing.
A full 50 percent of Mumbai’s 20 million people live in slums, defined as communities of substandard housing where there are no indoor toilets, or there are communal facilities, at best. You see large swaths of the city blanketed with plywood and cardboard and corrugated steel, and the omnipresent blue tarps. And the slums extend well outside of the city, with one million people a day commuting in and out by train, at times riding on the roof, or clinging to doors or windows.
And we saw the extreme have/have not comparison when our guide pointed-out the gated mansion of a Bollywood star, and then the home of the richest man in India, the head of giant Reliance Industries. His 27-storey ultramodern tower is said to be the most expensive residence in the world, costing more than $1 billion to build. It’s home to a family of five, and has multiple heliports and a staff of 600. And within the concrete and steel structure he keeps two cows, in order to ensure fresh milk.
Unlike so many of our ‘homeless’ in the U.S., slum dwellers are not necessarily unemployed; residents include hotel workers, waiters, taxi drivers, police officers, teachers and tour guides. And I was most interest in the enterprise that occurs within the slums. There are a number of ‘Dhobi Ghats’ throughout the city, ‘Dhobi’ being the caste of laundrymen, and ‘Ghat’ being a bathing or washing place. They operate as open air laundries, serving the hotels and apparel manufacturers, among others. We didn’t visit Dharavi, said to be the largest slum in all of Asia, with nearly 500 acres and one million people. But the guidebook says that ‘industry’ within that community includes leatherwork, textiles, pottery and recycling. So it’s at least encouraging to know that – depite their very hard lives – many of these people have purpose and dignity, and the ability to put food on their tables. They may even have hopes of becoming the next ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
To be the American friend of Sonu is to be larger-than-life with his family. They were all out to meet us when we arrived at his home in a rural village, a five-hour drive north of New Delhi. I moved amongst them for individual greetings with clapsed hands. And that was just the beginning. I was treated as a true ‘guest of honor’, staying in the best room in the house, and Preet served us meals specially ‘de-seasoned’ for me.
Fifteen family members live off a central courtyard; uncles, cousins and a ninety-something grandmother (no one is exactly sure of her age). All families have their own rooms, and there are five bathrooms. There are washing machines and propane stoves, but much of the clothes washing is done by hand, and they continue to cook over wood and dung outdoors.
The family has a total of 22 acres of farmland, where they grow cash crops of rice, wheat, and sugarcane, and some vegetables and fruit for their own use. Sonu is responsible for the five acres belonging to his immediate family. As landowners, they are of a higher caste, with darker-skinned laborers doing a good deal of the work, especially at harvest time. Another distinction: Sonu and his family ride motorbikes for transportation, while the workers travel by bicycle. The family shares one tractor, which is put to many uses.
‘Homestays’ have become a travel phenomenon, but nothing that Abercrombie and Kent could offer would compare with this experience. The window in my upstairs bedroom looked out across lush green fields lined with poplar trees, and there was constant activity as people worked the land, and traveled a dirt road on foot and with wheels. And bright green parrots, round-eyed owls, and kingfisher birds all perched nearby, while white egrets dotted the fields. Sounds of the morning started first with prayers heard from the nearby Gurudwara (temple), followed by all kinds of birdcalls, and then some barking and mooing.
I rode on the back of Sonu’s motorbike for tour of Saharanpur, the largest town near his village. And in the evening we played Uno. I brought the cards, thinking that might be a good way to bridge the language difference. We laughed and laughed during spirited, fun rounds of the game. And, every one of the 15 selected their color when I passed a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops.
I truly did feel honored by this very warm and loving family. They were kind and respectful, and bared their hearts to me. I’ve had a best friend in India for the last five years, and now I think I have family, too!
Next up, Sonu and I fly to Mumbai. This will be the first time for both of us to explore India’s largest city, which has the third or fourth largest urban population in the world.