Tuesday, March 5, 2013

After the FALL!!! (February 21st)

On the 20th (which would have been my mother's 101st birthday), one of the members of the DREAM TEAM from France - Michel Jean Gamet, had noticed that I was favoring my right leg and came to chat with me.  He asked if I would like to borrow a knee compression bandage to maybe help strengthen my knee, and to reduce the stress from it.  I accepted his generous offer and on the morning of the 21st (my daughter's birthday) I pulled on the compression bandage up over my right knee and then continued to get dressed.  Although it was considerably earlier than most of the other members of the Team were up and about, I decided to go outside my tent and have a look around.  Big mistake.  BIG Mistake!

When leaving my tent, I first tripped over the "threshold" at the entrance, began falling forward, tripped on a tree root which had poked itself up through the indoor-outdoor carpeting in front of my tent, went to grab the tent pole and slipped off of that (because of the early morning dew) and propelled forward (kind of like the Roadrunner cartoon character, where his legs are fiercely moving in a fast-forward circular motion, to the point of being a blur) and succeeded in surging forward about forty or fifty feet and SPLATTING on the wet, slippery ground, crashing down on my right knee cap!  This was NOT a pretty sight. As I lay there helpless, I seriously felt I had smashed my patella, and was worried that I would not be able to work.

Sanjay, the owner of the tents, happened to be out walking around the site, and saw me splatter on the ground.  He and another man came over to me and very carefully lifted me to my feet, which at best were shaking and not conducive to standing.  They propped me up for a few moments and then the three of us walked back over to my tent, where I sat down outside.  If only I FELT like a football star being helped off the field by the coach and trainer, but no such luck.  I hurt badly and just felt plain stupid for tripping like I had.  Good thing I had put on that compression bandage, right? 

A little while later, I limped over to the dining tent and had my breakfast with the rest of the members of the Team.  Although Sanjiv (my counterpart in India and the trip organizer) urged me to return to my tent and rest for the day, I insisted that nothing could get done unless I was a part of the group working, so I respectfully declined.  Once I hobbled over to the work site, I realized that I could stand pretty well and pass (toss) basins of masala, as long as I stood with my right leg bent a slight bit, and I could take the pressure off my knee. 

"Ice?" you say?  Nothing could be further from reality.  We barely had cool water, to say nothing of ice for an ice pack to keep the swelling down.  I was strictly dependent upon the compression bandage and decided not to remove it until the very last day, hoping beyond hope that there was no permanent damage and that the swelling was kept to a minimum. 

Another of the very hard, diligent, stoic workers (from the hired crew) was a man who carried huge rocks on his head, and then dumped them (tossed them off his head forward) into the pit where we were working.  How thankful I was that I was not carrying this weight on MY head!  Sometimes THREE men had to lift the boulder onto his head before he moved to carry it to the pit.  As one of my team members said about him, "He just continues to smile, and perhaps is thinking to himself that maybe, just maybe this will be the last big rock he is asked to carry!"


Our very own Peanut Gallery!

Tradition is, when we have helped to construct the first three water catchment dams in India, (and why should this one be any different) that the local young men hang out and "observe" what we Rotarians are doing.  It is an unfortunate tradition, but one, nonetheless, which exists.  The day we began working on the dam construction, Kay from Nebraska was one of the first to arrive on site.  You can tell from the look on her face, that she is NOT impressed!

As we all began to gather, those of us who had worked on these projects in the past three years were not surprised to see our "rock pile" for the coming week of work.  Other than the digging out of the area where we would be working, and the hauling of the water tank for helping to mix the concrete (masala), the only other mechanized part of this project was the tractor which brought our daily dose of rocks or limestone dust. 

One of the first tasks to get everyone acclimated with the project is to learn the teamwork approach to the passing of "masala" (concrete mix). Lines are formed, and although initially, folks believe that passing from one's left to one's right is easier, they soon come to realize that the passing goes much more smoothly, and therefore, more efficiently, if folks stand apart but opposite one another and kind of get in the "swing" of tossing a basin of masala to the next one in line. 

This process does take a bit of getting used to, saying nothing of building trust that the person who is tossing TO you will not simple heave it, but do it in a respectful manner, as you will in turn toss to the next one in the line.  Of course, there is also the need for the "returnables" to be tossed back, in order for the diggers to refill the basins.  There is a certain level of precision which is required for this task, as well, since one does not want to simply fling an empty basin back toward the masala pile, for fear of cracking someones skull in the process!

Once this process is understood, and people are into their rhythm, it is generally time for a song - I've Been Working on the Railroad, or Row, Row, Row Your Boat or the all-time favorite of the French members of the team, Alouette.  This year, we actually had a number of pretty good singers, and this always makes for a jollier and more productive time!

Out of the "hired group" of workers, there were two in particular that I would like to mention.  First, is a young man, by the name of Santos, who until the final day, I did not realize he is the youngest son of Goberdhan - the crew supervisor.  Santos was one of the two mixers of masala, standing barefoot in the limestone dust, and then going with Myesh to pick up two sacks of cement (each fifty kilos), cut them open and begin mixing with the limestone dust.  He dug into the pile with a vengeance and kept circling round and round, making sure the mix was the right consistency.  I noticed his right arm was severely scarred and two of his fingers were paralyzed almost in a claw-like manner.  There was something else about Santos which made him unique - his left arm had been cut off just below the elbow.  Having said this, however, Myesh and he were equal in their production and unless one stopped to look at Santos, one would never have imagined his handicap. 

Once I learned that he was a part of the family and the younger brother of Dinesh, I took the time to inquire about what had happened.  I was told that he was involved in a freak and horrific electrical accident, and was hospitalized for three months, recovering from severe brain damage, to say nothing of the damage to his arms and hand. 

Day One was accomplished and we all returned to our respective tents, where we all stretched out on our cots and took a brief nap.  Some also broke out some libations and enjoyed them before dinner was served in the dining tent.

Monday, March 4, 2013

So THIS is where we will call home for the next few days?

Once the bus driver began traveling down the road, through the tiny village, it seemed as though we were getting further and further away from civilization.  We had been given directions by Sanjiv to follow a particular toad for about 11 kilometers and then begin looking for signs which he had posted along the road.  I was kind of checking out the odometer and at about 6 kilometers, we approached a "toll booth" of sorts, a little building parked in the middle of the road. Our driver did not want to pay any tolls, so he stopped to ask directions to our dam site. I whispered to Bani that I thought we had only gone about half the distance we needed to travel before seeing the signs.  He urged the driver to continue down the road, and pay the toll and sure enough, in about five kilometers, we saw the first ROTARY DREAM TEAM sign on the left side of the road.  It was somewhat obscured by the team of water buffaloes stopping for "relief" on that side of the road, but I spotted the sign, indicating one lilometer further. When we saw the next sign, we were directed to turn left for one more kilometer. We noticed oncoming traffic of huge dump trucks, loaded with stone, approaching us and as we turned onto the side road (liberal use of the term "road") as far as we could see in the dark of night, were the headlights of oncoming trucks with cargo of stone!  Then the fun began!

I also noticed that we seemed to be "bucking" a bit and checked out the road ahead, and it was like driving through the Mud Bowl! We are talking rutss of at least a foot to a foot-and-a-half in depth.  I checked out the bus driver's expression and it was NOT a pleasant one, to say the least.  He maneuvered as best he could, again with the problem of oncoming truck after truck.  Then, for no apparent reason, we stopped.  Horns honking, beeping, creating a cacophony of sound - "just letting you know I am here" or "get out of the way" or "do you really want me to dump my load in front of you or better yet, on top of you?" Each horn has its own meaning and the drivers of buses and trucks and cars understand this "language".  We continued to look out the windows of our bus to see the goings-on outside.  The driver called out to someone on the other side of the road, only to learn that a truck further down the road had suffered a "puncture" (flat tire) and that someone was bringing along the tire to be repaird, at a "shop" across from where we were parked in the middle of the road. Anything is possible in India!

A few minutes later, a tiny truck arrived and had as its cargo, not the tire in need of repair, but the entire truck axle.  This was going to be a very long process.  However, in a few minutes, traffic began to move again, and we soldiered on, inch by inch. Again, the bucking bronco effect began and our driver was attempting to remain on top of the ruts, doing his best to balance so we would not get mired down in the depths.  The driver looked more and more worried, or should I say disgusted and at one point, he simply stopped the bus, turned off the motor and refused to go any further.  Well this caused a bit of a problem because we were still about half a kilometer from the camp site.  Frantic calls were made to contact Sanjiv in order to mediate the situation. Problem was that not all phones work in the remote areas.  We were able to reach Sanjiv who spoke with the driver.  The driver, in turn, decided to stand out in the middle of this pit and stop an oncoming jeep-type vehicle, asking to be driven further down the road so he could assess the situation.  After all, why would anyone drive his or her vehicle further, if the mud ruts were only going to get deeper, UNLESS, of course, one was into the sport of "muddin'"!

Our driver returned shortly and indicated this was the end of the road for his vehicle and we would have to make other arrangements.  In the meanwhile, I looked out and saw a familiar face - that of Dinesh, the son of Goverdahn, who was in charge of the crew constructing the dam.  He seemed very pleased to see me and indicated we would be met by others from the camp, in small jeep-type vehicles and ferried to the camp site.  It was only a few minutes more before the two vehicles were packed to the max with our team members and some of the bags.  The rest would come later once we were all transported to the camp site.  I suppose we could have walked the remaining distance, but in the dark of night, with only two of us having had previous experience in walking down country roads in India in the middle of the night, we were probably wise to accept the rides.

We finally bumped down the path-road (if there is such a term) until reaching a point where literally dozens of young men were crowding to see us as we disembarked from the jeeps.  Corrugated metal sheets were being hammered onto fence posts, in order to identify the boundary between "us" and "them". Sanjiv was there to greet us, as well as his wife, Jyotsna and his sister, Olie. Also, four of the members of the team from France had previously arrived and it was good to see other familiar faces.  The location of our tent village had been created by skimming off the top-soil and the setting out tents around the perimeter.  I had been told by the owner of the tent company, while we were in Nagaur, it had been quite difficult to set up this site, due to unseasonal rains the previous week, and I could see what he meant, particularly during our drive (?) through the mud pit!  The surface was skiddy and muddy and one had to take care while walking.  Even though it felt like the middle of the night, it was only a bit after seven, so we were shown to our respective tents and told dinner woul dbe served within the hour, in the dining tent.  I had more bags than anyone else, because I was carrying all of the team work tee shirts, as well as the team shirts for the NID, scheduled for the 24th.  It looked as though I would be staying for at least six months, I am sure.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hi Ho, Hi Ho...

Wednesday the 20th and we are on the way to work!!!

Even though I am normally a very early riser, the rest of the team seemed a bit draggy when we all gathered in the hotel lobby to check out and then take three vans to the railway station.  That train experience was to be about a four hour ride to the pink city of Jaipur, but this was not the entire trip - not by any stretch of the imagination.  When we arrived at the train station, we then had to cross to the other side, and exit to the street, where a few blocks away, our original bus was awaiting our arrival.  We recognized our porter, but the driver was a man we had not previously seen.  He was hired to drive unto the outskirts of the city and then we would be met by our regular driver who would drive us to the dam site. We would be driving for at least six hours and manyof the roads would be considered not much better than wood roads. 

Bani asked me about when we might consider taking lunch and we discussed the various options available to us: we could drive for two hours and the take a lunch, and then have four or five more hours to reach our destination OR we could "push on through" and only stop for "potty" breaks, and perhaps long enough to buy some snacks. Discussion ensued and a vote was called and unanimously, it was decided to push on through, in hopes of reaching the campsite before sundown. 

For some reason, most of India was on the road that day, and all traveling between Jaipur and Sohna. Even once we would arrive in Sohna, we would still have about an hour to drive on to the campsite. Well, technically speaking, anyway! Once again, our driver more or less glided in and around huge trucks loaded with stone or men on motorcycles, with the greatest of agility. Our porter was very attentive and skilled at directing the driver what lay ahead, but might not be within his view. 

At about five o'clock, we were approaching the turn off toward Mewat, where we would follow that road until we reached a few crowded villages, strewn with produce carts, chicken cages, tire carts, carpenters planing down teak wood doors, children pushing along their wheeled carts, little girls wearing their school uniforms and walking hand in hand. Folks in our group remarked about the prevalence of bright (safety) orange saris. Slowly, members of the team began to bond, learning more about each other and individual Rotary Clubs, families, previous "mission" trips, etc.

THEN, we arrived in the nearby town to the damsite and began looking for signs directing us to the road which passed by our destination. 

So this is MEDICARE...

Welcome to MEDICARE (19 February 2013)

Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would reach the age of sixty-five, nor did I think I would ever qualify to participate in the Medicare program provided to senior citizens in the United States.  Well, here I am - yup, I made it!!!

My day began with a telephone call from my daughter, wishing me a Happy Birthday. This was followed by another telephone call from my wife. The final call of the early morning came from my eleven year old grandson. What a treat, to hear birthday greetings from the three most important people in my life!  Earlier, at about 4:30 I had ventured down to the manager's office in order to connect to the WiFi offered.  I wanted to check Email, as well as Facebook entries. It is amazing to count the number of people from all parts of the world who take the time to send birthday wishes. Thanks to all of them.

Breakfast was in the hotel dining room, at the Himmatgarh Palace Hotel, with the other team members and Andreas and Beatrix Eickhoff from Germany brought me a gift from their home town, a brass replica of a coal miner's lamp and two beautiful magazines promoting their home city. Really interesting to read about how the government in their city had repurposed several of the relics of the past Industrial Age of the area, most notably the conversion of the old water tower into an art museum! Wow, now THAT is vision!

We all then boarded our bus to be driven to the city of Jodhpur. It was going to be a very long ride and I was experiencing a queasy stomach so just wanted to fall asleep on the trip for a few hours. The plan was to drive for three or four hours and then stop for a long lunch and then continue driving for a few more hours, when we would reach our hotel in Jodhpur. After some discussion, we voted to more or less drive straight through, with only a pit stop and perhaps a short stop for buying snacks. 

When we finally reached the"blue city" of Jodhpur, the fort loomed ahead of us on the top of the hill. We met our new guide for the afternoon, and were pleased to be reunited with our teammate, Cornelia Stockman, who had separated from us a few days prior, in order to visit a project supported by her Rotary Club, that was located in Bikaner. She had brought about one thousand pencils to give to the children at the school. She had several experiences to share with us as we walked to visit the famous crematorium in Jodhpur that looked more like a white marble monument, with smaller sandstone monuments nearby. This was the location of what we in America might refer to as a cemetery, and used almost strictly by the royal family members. There were also two very modern looking monuments, made of white marble and enclosed within a wrought iron fenced area, and topped with a tiny horse. I asked about these and our guide explained that one of the members of the royal family was a renowned polo player, who had been killed in an accident, along with his fellow teammate and so both had monuments constructed there.

 From the crematorium, we then traveled to the city fort for a tour.  Once more, the facades on the exterior of the fort, as well as within its towering walls where princes and maharajahs and their many wives and mistresses all lived, provided an amazing spectacle for all to appreciate.  Again, to imagine living in the ages through literally hundreds of years, when these places were thriving would boggle the mind.  

We descended from the top level of the fort, stopping en route at the government sponsored shops which were cleverly located between the top level with its magnificent vistas, and  filled with wonderful and expensive souvenirs and gift items. Because of the great love of polo in Jodhpur, many of the items were reflective of the sport. Although we heard about it and saw photos in the museum, we never had the opportunity to witness a real and close-up game of Elephant Polo.

The winding passageway back to the street level took quite a good deal of time, because the elevator was no longer operational at that time and the steep slope of the cobblestone "street" was almost treacherous because of the centuries of wear, augmented by elephant dung and other waste, ground into the stones. We all made it back to our awaiting bus, without incident.

We then were driven to our hotel, the Ranbanka Palace, another of the Heritage hotels in India. Of the hotels where we had stayed, the rooms at this hotel were by far the nicest. My accommodations included a bathroom that was about fifteen by twenty feet in size and had a very long and deep bathtub, as well as a shower that could accommodate about a dozen people!  We all we to meet in the dining room for dinner, but decided it was warm enough to sit outside in the garden and enjoy my birthday dinner under the stars.  A troupe of Rajasthany folk dancers entertained us, and even sang a version of Happy Birthday to me.  Since we were having a very realty wake up call, we all decided to call it a day. 
The call came very, very early, at 4:30, since we had to check out of the hotel no later than 5:10 and then be on our way to the railway station to catch the train to Jaipur, which was departing the station at 6:10.  This was yet another new experience for the members of the team.

Later on the 18th

Later on the 18th at the Sam Sand Dunes (18 February )

After we finished  shopping at the government controlled haveli, we jumped back into our respective "Tuk-Tuks" and headed back to where the bus had been parked. On our walk back to where the "Tuk-Tuks" were parked, we waited alongside the narrow street as a procession passed by us. We had been told about an hour before that a person had died at one of the homes up a side alley.  While we were touring part of the city, the body had been properly prepared, draped in the white shroud, covered with flowers and the family and friends had gathered at the home, all of them dressed in white, and then followed the carried litter with the body of the deceased, in a procession which led through the streets to the place for the cremation. What an amazing experience to be peripherally involved with the grieving of a family who had lost a loved one.

After boarding our chariots, we were whisked through winding city streets and alleys back to our bus. Then we headed west out to the Sam Sand Dunes, about twenty miles east of the border with Pakistan!  Both mornings, shortly after I got out of bed, I could hear jet fighter planes roaring up and back along both sides of the border. Anyway, we arrived at a camel caravan stop on the side of the highway, and were escorted to several camels and their drivers who seemed to be waiting for us. We had all nonchalantly agreed to take camels that afternoon, but most probably didn't pay much attention to what we had agreed to do. We were assigned to our own camel and climbed up into the saddles and leaned way back as the driver coaxed our steeds onto their feet!  Once all aboard, we followed the long line of camels with riders out into the desert and out onto the dunes. It was anticipated that we might be riding until sunset. My camel was a huge bull who seemed to be rather intolerant of other camels  and continually walked over to another camel to nip at the tail of his "cousin" or to sidle up to another and be almost noodling face to face. There must have been at least two hundred camels who were ferrying us to our viewing destination. It is always good to pause for a moment or two, to take stock of one's life and situation and to be grateful for what opportunities are presented to us to experience and enjoy.  This was one of those moments... to imagine sitting atop a "ship of the desert", riding westward to view one of nature's miracles (even though a daily occurrence) a sunset!  I remember as a youngster, going to the movies to see AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, and marveling at being lifted skyward in a hot air balloon and wondering if i would ever enjoy a camel ride and view the sunsets of the desert. Well, here I was! Is this what could qualify as something on my Bucket List?

Once the sun receded, we enjoyed dinner at a new encampment, which was owned by friends of Ummed. It was a tent village resort, near the dunes but nobody seemed to be staying there at present - most likely because it had only recently opened and was not "known" as a destination on the circuit. Dinner was enjoyable, and included musical and dance entertainment provided by some Rajasthany instrumentalists and dancers. There was a male dancer who wowed us with his fire-eating talents, and a young woman dancer who danced barefoot on broken glass shards while balancing a tower of pots on her head. What was fascinating to some of us was the young boy, maybe of fourteen years of age, who was learning to play some of the instruments, among them the "bones" (wooden sticks that were somewhat curved, two of which were held in each hand and clapped or snapped as a percussion to the music). The boy was new to the instrument and although he could snap them for creating a dramatic exclamation to a musical phrase, he had not yet mastered the art of a continuo of muffled percussion. It was interesting to watch the boy attempting to emulate the older players, and in turn encouraging to watch as the older players were endearingly observing the boy to make sure he did it right.

Following dinner and the show, we boarded the bus to return to Jaisalmer and be taken to a family-owned silver jewelry shop that was being opened just for us by the owner and the family who lived upstairs over the shop. I had remembered being able to purchase some antique silver pieces back in 2007, at bargain prices and was hoping to be able to score another few items again. Suffice it to say, although we were at the shop well past 10:30 at night, we were not tremendously successful. The rest of the team returned to the hotel bus while I stayed behind a bit longer and almost fled through the dark alleys and streets in a Tuk-Tuk. 

The following day promising to be a long one, as well as my 65th birthday, I was grateful to fall onto my bed for some rest, even if as it turned out, for only a few hours.

Jaisalmer - The Golden City

 February 18, 2013

From Nagaur, we rode in our bus to the city of Jaisalmer, a city I had visited six years ago, with another Dream Team.  When we approached the city, the location of the oldest "living" fort in all of India, we looked up at the top of the hill to see the amazing battlements, constructed of the local material - sandstone.  My recollection is that there are ninety-nine battlement "turrets" which surround the city. 

We first met our guide, Ummed, who rode a short distance with us to the lake that had been created in the early fourteenth century. Close to the water's edge were a number of dome-covered platforms, presumably where the moguls from centuries past, stood and reviewed parades of people coming to the lake for various ceremonies, primarily cremations. Ummed explained the custom of what occurs when someone who is a Hindu dies. The body is wrapped in white cloth and strewn with flowers and carried by the family to the water's edge, lowered and set alight and burned (or cremated). The ashes are then collected and placed into a pottery pot and eventually the family carries those final remains to the banks of the Ganges, where they are finally disbursed and the soul of the deceased is released. Ummed's explanations of the local customs and culture were detailed and so helpful to us to better understand and appreciate. 
From the lake, we then climbed steps to a small Hindu temple, where we were invited to enter, without our shoes, and to hear the chanting of the priest. Ummed again explaining all the while about the entry into the temple and the surroundings inside. We were allowed to take photos, and when Ummed explained to the priest that the following day was my birthday, he offered to pray for me and to give me his blessing. He smeared both red and yellow cum cum powder tikkas on my forehead, as well as rice, and then tied red threads around my right wrist (joining other such threads, some of which have been the since 2003!) I felt so blessed to be able to receive his prayers.

Once we boarded our bus, we were then driven to the gates for the city and entered and climbed the snake path to the top, passing shops and tea rooms and some small hotels on the way to the summit. At each gate, we learned more about Jaisalmer-Ummed's home city. At one such gate, I believe it was called Ganesha's gate, three holy men sat outside and raised their hands toward us, inviting photos and, of course, the small payment of appreciation for the privilege of taking the photos. When we descended the winding street, we then were driven in "Tuk-Tuks" to the restaurant, where we enjoyed local cuisine, including desert beans and rice. From the restaurant's top floor terrace room, we were able to look out below and see women digging in the dirt and working on reconstruction projects. With the entire city constructed of sandstone, using no mortar, through time, the walls have seriously deteriorated and begun to crumble. Restoration is a huge and time-consuming project that might be finished in a few decades. The amazing carved sandstone facades looked more like finely carved wooden screens, belying the fact that the perishable and porous material if properly treated can withstand the test of time.

We toured the narrow streets of the city, viewing the outside of the famous Havelis, each one more elaborately carved than the previous one. The Havelis could tell their own stories. One question that arose was how the white marble used in the construction of the Havelis facades looked so much like a golden teak wood. It was explained that once finished, the white marble was "painted" with a solution made up of water and the dung and urine of cows (not bulls). This solution not only gave a golden tint to the carved walls, but also helped to coat the walls with a protective shield.

Two of these buildings are undergoing substantial restoration as a result of former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi's family having purchased the buildings and pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project. Inside one of the Havelis, we found a government regulated shop, where we were shown beautiful silk spreads, wall hangings and of course, pashmina shawls. It was explained to us the difference between real Pashmina and that made of viscous threads. Several in the group purchased various items and when we finally left, we were told we had to leave for the desert, where we would enjoy our next adventure!