Returning to Tala

November 12, 2010

It is November 12, 2010. Soon, I will be returning to Tala. I leave December 17th. I have spent the last month or so planning the trip, organizing the hotels, airfare, train travel…always planning, thinking, planning. Nothing in India is easy. It sounds so glamorous–romantic even,  saying something like ” I will be taking an overnight train from Caluctta to Varanasi” but in reality its chaotic and dirty and such a lot of work. But. Its amazing and entertaining and enlightening .  India ‘brings you face to face with your own s**t someone’ said to me once. I did not understand that then, I do now. If you are a westener, and you go to India, you  feel that you can never complain about anything ever again. India makes you grateful.

Your neck gets sore from constantly looking around at the people, the chaos and confusion. Your brain and senses are constantly being assaulted with the noise , smell and food. For a poor country that has a large population of starving people–there sure is a lot of food. People are always eating. Never washing dishes or pots…just…always eating. How is that possible?

The ‘work’ of India starts even before you board the plane. Websites dont work, phone calls dont work even though you have called the 5 numbers listed on the website, nobody emails back from either of the 4 email addresses listed on the website,  reservations get lost, reservations can’t be made, visas have to be obtained. Ah, yes the visa. To enter India as a tourist, one needs a tourist visa. Sounds simple enough, right? Not really. To get the tourist visa, you have to apply for it by mail, or in person. You need to fill out forms. Lots of forms. You need to have photos, passport, cash and two self-addressed postage pre-paid envelopes. If all is in order, you will get your visa in 5-7500 working days. Maybe.

But. Thats India.

I will be leaving Dec. 17th and arriving at my final destination –Calcutta ( now Kolkata) 48 hours later. Yay, me! I mean that both ways-sarcastic and happy. From there, I am meeting up with my mother, and we are taking the overnight train to Varanasi. Holiest of holy cities.

From there, we go to Tala. I will be spending 6 days at the White Tiger Forest Lodge. During that time, I will be working with the Bandhavgarh Anti-Malaria club and distributing the nets and the sports equipment I am purchasing with the generous donations from the churches. It is long overdue, and I am looking forward to this experience.

This will be the first time that I am going when the tiger park is open. Usually I am there in July, and the tiger park is closed. Hopefully, I will see a tiger. Hopefully it will be from the back of  a jeep, and not crossing my path. They eat people you know…..

Advertisements

Focus

September 10, 2010

If you are a regular blog readeryou will note that when there has been a hiatus from the blog author, there are the usual apologies and regrets about the delays in regular postings.  I am no exception. I apologize for the lack of posting. I have no excuse, but let me say that sometimes life just gets in the way of ones dreams.

Now that I am back on track–let me continue the story as it unfolded. In early December of 2009 I made an appeal to the London Seventh-Day-Adventist Church for donations to the Anti-Malaria Club. My plan was to give the money to my mother, who would then visit the Club, and Tala–and go through much the same process as we did–make the trek to Umaria, purchase the nets, distribute the nets and give some money to the  club for their operating expenses.

On that Sabbath Day, I collected 525$!! The people of the congregation were more than generous in their trust and their monies. I was excited about the growth of our small work, and excited about continuing with the tide of enthusiasm displayed by the students of Tala.

Much to my dismay though, my mother never did make the trip to Tala, as she had an accident in Calcutta. She had to cut her trip short, and she returned to Bangkok after major surgery and a short hospital stay in India.

Many thanks go to my mothers friends Cris and Pat, who were kind enough to make the journey to Tala to express regrets for my mother not returning, and to continue in part, with the  job of ‘spreading the nets’.

With a portion of money, they again, cleaned out the man’s supply of mosquito nets and went with the students into the homes to hang them, and explain about malaria.

Pictured  are Vedant and Cris, distributing one of the over 40 more nets that were bought and distributed to the people of the region.

They could not possibly take on the task of spending all the money in a way that had integrity and thought, so the remaining money was left in my bank account. It still sits there, waiting to be put to good use.

While there are many worthwhile charity projects I could have donated the money to in the interm ( I am reminded of Haiti and Pakistan) I did not feel comfortable doing this, since the people of the church trusted me in my appeal. The money was supposed to be used for the Bandhavgarh Anti-Malaria Club…and so it WILL be used for that.

The journey continues this winter, when on December 17th, I am flying once again to India to visit our club and our students. With the remaining donations, I will purchase and distribute more nets, and hopefully some sports equipment as well for some of the poorer schools in the area.

I am sad to report as well, that since our second visit that summer ago, one of the students was maimed, then killed by a tiger. She was a promising student, a young girl of 18 devoted to her family and her schooling…and yet for some reason, her life was cut short. She was attacked by a tiger while gathering wood for her family.

Her death  is just an example of the close connection that the people of the region have with the tigers that live in the area. As stated before, Tala is on the edge of the Bandhavgarh National Tiger Reserve, and the people that live in the area are in constant threat as they compete for space with these great animals.

The people of the area are of course, devasted by her death, and the death of other villagers by the tigers. However, they do not hold the tiger in animosity. Their love for the tiger runs deep, and they recognize that they have to share their farms and their homes with these wild animals. It is almost a foregone conclusion that there will be loss of life.

Another sad, but true fact of life.

Spreading the Nets

April 15, 2010

We had many nets to deliver, and many homes to visit. We set off excitedly, the kids from the club, Immy and myself; in jeeps that we had hired for the day. The plan was to visit the homes, explain why the net was important, and malarial prevention ideas. Always, the first line of defense is ‘do not get bitten’–a fact that I found somewhat amusing, as these people for all intents and purposes, lived outside. Permanent Camping, with no Winabego! Their homes had no doors, no windows, no screens, no glass…they were mud huts. How could they possibly ‘not get bitten?’

You can only do so much however, so in each home,  we went through the general prevention guidelines. No standing water, gasoline on the puddles to prevent breeding, use of nets, smoke in the evening, to discourage mosquitos etc. As some of the kids from the club would talk, the rest of the group put up the nets in the homes–while the children watched–fascinated.

From home to home we went–talking, tying the net, explaining–hoping that the minute we left, they did not take the net down and sell it, or use it as a fishing net, hoping that this simple net could save a life.

Connecting with the elderly.

Use of the net is demonstated

So the day went, and the next day. Each home, each family benefiting from the work of a few individuals.

I like to think that now, almost  a year later, that if I were to go into the homes, I would see those nets, always protecting the most vulnerable–the children and the elderly.

I hope so.

THE ‘MIRACLE’

I’ll start by apologising to Laura for not posting as regularly, or if truth be told at all for some time.  

Let me first address the ‘miracle’.  It depends on what you class as a miracle.  As a scientist I do not believe in miracles in the traditional sense i.e. a wheelchair bound, blind person springing to their feet like a lamb in springtime being able to see all the colours of the rainbow again due to divine inspiration.  I know many people do, including people in my own faith and that is fair enough and to each their own, but I personally do not.  As for the uniform appearing out of nowhere, it must have been overlooked the first time, or was placed there after being found elsewhere– it did not appear out of nowehere.

Having said that, I do believe miracles of sorts do occur in our everyday lives, it’s just that we stop seeing them and put them down to chance or coincidence.  The miracle that I believe did occur with the uniforms was personal to that particular boy, who would have gone home without a uniform and would not have known the feeling of wearing something with pride, a symbol of his and his families aspirations.  The fact that a simple uniform gave him that feeling to me at least is miraculous.

 THE VILLAGE

Villages to my mind are a quaint communities in the English countryside, with thatched roofs and country lanes, perhaps a local post office and a local pub.  Of course in India I wasn’t imagining the above, but (and maybe naively) was imagning small huts with warm, welcoming,  and glowing lights.  They should all have doors at least shouldn’t they?

Wrong and wrong again.  Laura has described the conditions of the villages perfectly, but like she says, the descriptions don’t do it justice.  To start with the road, or lack of road, path or any other mendium by which a veichle travels from A to B was alarmingly absent, which meant we had to walk, no wait..hike.

En route we were given tales of snake bites, and tiger maulings  and subsequent mortalities by the entourage.  As I double checked my combats were tucked into my boots, I noticed that Laura was doing much better than me and was not in the least perturbed by these tales of death.  I also notices a some sticks, mud and crud in the distance and was pondering on the route around the obstacle when Nagendra pointed out that, that was in fact the village.  

The huts, had no windows, no doors and no electricity.  The people were poor by indian standards, and thats poor.  They were covered in lesions, malnurished and looked broken.  Alarmingly I noticed that cows were living next door to their owners, but that was soon clarified, they were in fact living with their owners, because the animals were being eaten by tigers if they weren’t secured in.  Ah ok, makes sense, thats alright then.

I realise this sounds pompous, and reading like I and indeed we, are better than them.  This is not what I mean at all.  These people were warm, friendly and welcomming, in fact the warmest reception and send off I have ever received, if these people like you, they fall in love with you.  The problem was, and is that they are desperately poor and lacking in resources, including education.

The villagers were all gathered waiting for us, sat squatted in the only area of the village that could hold 30 odd people.  The men were bust organising whilst the women cradled babies and covered their faces. 

I had come with armed with a plan, to talk about malarial prevention which, went out the window initially as we talked about health & hygiene, washing hands, and covering up open wounds.  At one point a woman came forward and asked Laura to hold her eplieptic child, so to cure her.  The villagers believed that to be held by a white person is good luck, and healing.  I thought it strange and uncomfortable, although Laura of course obliged, i’m sure she felt the same way but you could never tell.

After we had completed the talk and demonstrations, Laura handed out bandages and toothbrushes that she brought from Canada and of course the people were thrilled, thanks again to her church.  Finally we were escorted by the village elders to the ‘road’ out.  One older man, infact the chap in the glasses in the below picture said ‘thank you so much for comming, you have given so much, I will now clear the shit from the road so you don’t have to come accross it’.  We hadn’t really done anything, but it just goes to show the appreciation for a little bit of time and attention which these people have done without for so long.

The experience brought home to me how valuable education is, and how I had taken a good education for granted for so long–and I think that is true for alot of people in developed countries, we forget that that there are people out there that would give their right arm for an education.  These people are hungry, hungry for anything we can give them.

Despite the fact that we got off to a rocky start with the trip back–we arrived in Tala July 19th, 2009. We were armed with the usual medicine kit of accessories–the sprays, the lotions, the pills, the ointments…being sick is always a major concern when travelling India, and this time was no exception!

           

Upon our arrival, we were greeted once again by Mohan at the Umaria train station. Always recognizeable in his ‘safari clothes and cap’ he was a very welcome site at 5 in the morning, when our train pulled in.

Despite having slept on the train, you always arrive at your destination exhausted and feeling extremely unclean–I couldnt wait for a hot shower. However, a hot shower is not a guarantee in India, as the power goes off regularly and the free running water is always hit and miss.

After a reviving breakfast of dal and rice ( the bog standard for food in India) and a lukewarm shower–we were warmly greeted by all the kids from the Anti-malaria Club. They came armed with their banners and their slogans and their ideas–ready to go out and conquer the mosquito population of Bandhavgarh!!

The first priority was to determine how we were going to distribute the nets–we had a total of approximately 700$ with which to buy the nets, and the need was great–how were we going to distribute them? What are the criteria we would use? The homes with children? The poorest families? The families in the outlying villages? How can you decide who needs them the most?? We needed the wisdom of Solomon on that one, as to our untrained eye, they were all poor and in desperate need!

We finally all agreed that the poorest families –as judged so by the Indian Census Statistics –with children, would each get a net. It was the best we could do.

That night, I was desperately ill and spent the next day moaning and dying in my bed.

Immy was left with the momentous task of holding our first Anti-Malaria Club meeting. As honorary chairman, he governed the proceedings and decisions were made on how we were to proceed. He was also left with the awesome responsibility of going back to Umaria and purchasing the nets. It sounds simple, but in reality thats a days job. Nothing is easy in India. Its a nice picture, and looks like a smooth ride–but thats because you cant see the craters in the road!

Immy returned that day, having successfully cleaned the man out of ALL his mosquito nets. We still had money left over that we would have to use at a later visit. Did that mean we had to come back?? Probably, but that would be a decision for a later time. Right now, we had more pressing matters to attend to–my funeral ( 🙂 ) and net distribution!

Nets awaiting distribution!

Time Out

March 26, 2010

Hello!

Sorry for the delay in posting…while I had lots of time to write, my headspace was in a bit of fog–and knew that the postings would not be the witty, informative, humourous entries you have come to expect!  🙂

Am out of the brain fog, and will now continue the story from where I left off.

From the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2009, Immy and I were unsure about whether or not to return to Tala. Quite honestly, India is a huge amount of work…and never really ” a good time”. India is always an exhausting adventure–and its a big, wide world out there, and there was more to see of it! Our holidays are precious, and we were not sure if we wanted to commit to another 3 weeks at the same spot. Ah, but the people. And the kids. And Raju. And Mohan. And the club. And my mom….and quite frankly, I did not want to be one of those “white do-gooders” that capitalize on the misfortunes of others, so that they can make themselves feel good.

Truly, who were we doing this for? Ourselves or them? Did we truly want to help, or was this just a convenient way of patting ourselves on the back?

We spent pretty much the whole fall and early spring pondering these questions and more…like…can we stand the heat again? The trains? The bugs? The chaos? The confusion? The smiles? The joy? The gratitude? I dont remember what exactly the deciding factor was that prompted us to decide–I think it was Immy ( he would say it was me )..but we committed to going back one more time. We booked our  flights for July 19 2009 and with that, fundraising began again!

The Five Dollar Concept….

The concept of a managable, relatively small, yet specific donation really worked for the school uniforms, and we thought that it would be a good idea if we kept to that premise. We found out that the cost of one mosquito net is roughly 5$. With exchange, and tax…it was almost an exact match. Perfect.

We hit up friends, we hit up colleagues, we hit up church members, we hit up friends of friends….heck, we even hit up friends, of friends, of friends…all in all we left for India on July 19th with over 700$ raised for mosquito nets. Pretty cool. Again, I was amazed at how people gave willingly, happily and without question. Whenever I fund raise, it strengthens my faith in the innate goodness of man, and the generosity of the human spirit. There were even some little kids in my church, who happily gave their birthday money, which amounted to 20$ or 4 mosquito nets. How cool is that?

Bandhavgarh Anti-Malaria Club

February 14, 2010

After a bit of a struggle with the name, and the positions of President/Vice President etc…The Bandhavgarh Anti-Malaria Club was formed!

The photo above was taken in the fall of 2008–even though the black and white aspect makes it look like something out of the 1950’s.

Through regular correspondance with emails, the mandate and focus of the club was established: Namely to spread the word about preventing malaria, proper hygience practices, and community clean-up.

This young, vibrant group of students had, at its start a mission and a goal–to teach the poorest of the poor in the outlying villages and to provide each family with rudimentary malaria education, thereby possibly preventing another death due to this fatal yet preventable disease.

Since that time, the focus has grown to include anti-malaria education, hygeine practices, medical information, community improvement and pre-natal health!!

The club also is planning to apply for  Registration as an official Club of India. This will provide them with access to more resources than what can be gleaned just by the payment of club dues, and donations. The club now contains girls and boys–something I am very proud of…as often, girls from Asian communities are more comfortable to stay in the background and let the males take over!! Needless to say, I encouraged their involvement!

                                                                                       

From July 2008 to July 2009, the club was active in their mandate. They made badges, banners and gathered statisics on local deaths due to malaria, they kept records which included the names of the families that were officially classified as ‘poor’ ( which, as you can imagine–by Indian standards is a bit different than the western standard) and the number of children present in the home.

Likewise, Immy and I were busy making plans to return in the summer of 2009 but this time bringing money collected from church groups for the purchase of–not uniforms this time–but mosquito nets for distribution to the poor families in the villages! Knowing that we were returning gave the kids momentum and by the time we arrived in July they were eager to show us what they had accomplished…and we were eager to get going with net distribution!!

A Club is Born…..

February 9, 2010

The rest of the time that we spent at Bandhavgarh with the students, Mohan and Raju from the White Tiger Forest Lodge, and with the school staff,  our belief and commitment to try to continue to make a difference in the lives of these people was solidified.  It was not so much that they needed our help because they were incapable on their own–clearly they were resourceful and making do–it was more about the fact that we were fortunate enough, by the grace of God to be born in countries that had an infrastructure of good health care, available opportunities, and a thriving education system. It was more a matter of sharing the wealth.

The day we left, we promised to return!

When we got back to our countries–the UK and Canada a few weeks later, we got an email from a young man who came to the school when we were there, for the sole purpose of practice in speaking English. He was eager to utilize the opportunity to hear English spoken, to practice speaking, and to make connections. His name is Vedant.

Much to our shock and delight, Vedant told us in that email, that based on the work that he saw us doing, he had decided that he was going to start an “Anti-Malaria Club”, whose mandate would be to spread the word about malaria, proper hygiene practices and health education to the people of his community.

He told us the names of all the students that were part of the Club, and while we didnt connect faces with names at the time, we certainly recognized the students from the photos!

The Bandhavgarh Anti-Malaria Club is Born!

The Club in Action!

We  left Bandhavgarh in August of 2008, and returned July 2009. During that time, the Club was active in establishing a groundwork of goals and objectives for their focus. In conjunction with a local Doctor, the Principal of the School, and local government, the Club was key in cleaning up the community grounds, educating the people of Tala and surrounding villages, and encouraging Immy and I to raise more funds locally for mosquito nets!

This was truly an example of how none of our acts or labours operate in isolation. The ripple effect was clearly evident here, our simple act of going to Tala, and teaching English….fostered this young man to make a difference in HIS community–which in turn, encouraged OTHERS to join in. Now, the Anti-Malaria Club of Bandhavgarh, has over 20 members, and they continue to educate and inform the people of their community.

We are very proud of them.

The Club Members 2009

The power of the Ripple Effect…

The Village

February 4, 2010

It was something like out of a National Geographic Special. Impossible to even describe here. Poverty is a word that describes many things, but it does not adequately portray the living conditions of these people. I could type the word ‘heat” but that does not portray the intense heat and overpowering heaviness of the humidity and weight of the air, that was filled with the smell of goat dung and raw sewage. We were not prepared for what we would find, and after we parked our vehicle, and walked the hour to the village, we were left awestruck. The people were in the fields, eekking out a living from the reluctant and stingy soil. The half-naked children were left to care for themselves and their siblings, as their parents worked in the field. They did not go to school, as education was not a priority, or transportation was impossible

Walking to the village…

The purpose of the visit was for us to do a presentation on hygiene practices, and malaria awareness. But truly, it seemed like an impossible task…so much education was needed, and it was hard to figure out where to start.
The people came though, eager to hear what we had to say, eager for education, and instruction.

 Villagers listening intently..

As we talked, and explained the importance of  the simple acts of boiling water/hand washing/cleaning wounds/keeping flies off food/and cleaning up the area from stagnant water and anti-malaria procedures, you could see the information hitting home to the women, who nodded and made comments to each other, as we talked.

After a while, all the people nodded and listened intently…and you could see that they were processing what we were saying, and at the end of the presentation, were grateful for our efforts, and our meager gifts of band-aids, shampoo, soap, cotton balls, disinfectant, and eye glasses.

Village leader, with a gift of a bottle of shampoo….

Village Elder with his new glasses….

Its hard to describe the conditions without sounding patronizing and pretentious. These people are strong, resourceful and yet desperate for knowledge, education and the resources with which to help themselves.

We did what we could in an hour or so …and promised to return. We did not have the supplies, or the means with which to address all their concerns, nor to make more than a drop of difference in their struggle for survival.

And yes, we did go back, but that’s another story…