Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Gift

It is amazing to think about the world, and how in all its apparent vastness it can come shrinking down to the size of a single conversation between a few human beings. Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending the wedding reception of the daughter of the chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Bangalore. During the wonderful festivities, which were opened by three wonderful prayers from the Bahá’i writings, I had the pleasure of being acquainted with a certain Mr. Mark Perry and his lovely wife Azadeh Rohanian Perry. It seems as if we had a mutual friend by the name of Vesall Nourani (pictured at left), who I had the pleasure of serving with at Green Acre Bahá’i School in Eliot, Maine this summer. They both live in the same community of Chapel Hill North Carolina, and Mark told me that on the eve of their departure to India Vesall was over at their house showing them pictures of his summer at Green Acre, which had included pictures of me! Both Mark and I thought this was rather humorous and talked later on that evening about what a special place Green Acre held in both of our hearts.

Some relatives of the Groom, who was originally from Shiraz, had also came to attend the reception. Among those kin were three youth, Rahil, Maaman, and Martha, who were among the Bahá’i youth from Shiraz who were arrested and thrown into prison earlier this year for allegedly teaching the Bahá’i Faith. The Bahá’i’s are heavily persecuted in Iran and a new wave of victimization has swept the country in the last few months. I had the wonderful bounty of being able to speak with Rahil, and Maaman about their experience. They both were quick to let me know that it was a misunderstanding on the Iranian Governments part as they were only holding moral development classes for children and jr. youth, and were being very careful not to associate it with the Bahá’i Faith at all. Somehow they were reported to the Mullah’s and were scooped up and thrown into jail. Maaman recounted how she had been blindfolded and forced to walk to an unknown location to sit in isolation for hours before the Iranian Government interrogated her about her activities. Both of them said that all the youth put in jail were in good spirits the whole time and that what had happened to them was nothing compared to Mona’s story. They were in Jail for six days before they were released. I asked them if there was one thing that they would want to tell the world, and they asked the Bahá’i youth of the earth to take advantage of their religious freedom and to take on the glorious responsibility of instilling morals in our most precious resource: children. What a wonderful gift those precious youth have given the world.

You can read more about what happened to the youth of Shiraz Here

And if you wish to know more about Mona’s story Please Click Here

To find out the latest news regarding the persecution of Bahá’i’s in Iran, click Here

Sunday was the birthday of one of the most popular Gods worshipped in the Hindu Religion: Ganesha, the elephant headed God. Starting around six o’clock many troops of drummers congregated on the street outside of our apartment. They were drumming in front of a rather large Ganesha idol and there were many youth dancing in the streets. Geeta’s cousin had invited us over for dinner so Michael, Geeta, and I loaded up into an auto-rickshaw and made our way over to Geeta’s cousins house. For the festival of Ganesha’s birthday in Bangalore, the local Hindu families each bought an idol of Ganesha, some made of clay while others are made of salt, and decorate it and give it an offering of food in the form of a meal, which is placed in front of the statue. Then, sometime in the early to late evening hours the families join a procession of thousands to Ulsoor Lake, which has a section of it partitioned off especially for this event. The Ganesha statues, some measuring 12 feet high or more, are then dunked and immersed in the water and left to dissolve. This is because they are giving the statue back to the earth, from whence it came. After looking at Geeta’s cousins dressed up Ganesha Idol, Michael and I went to the lake to watch the festivities while Geeta made her way home. Upon nearing the part of the lake where the dunking was being held, neither Michael nor I knew what to expect. Upon entering the gates our eyes beheld a glorious, shocking, bewildering, amazing, surprising sight. Thousands upon Thousands of people were all standing around a square arena with descending stairs on all sides that led to a giant pool of brown brackish water. Hundreds of people at a time were dunking both themselves and their Ganesha Idols in Adam's ale (water). The smell of incense invaded our nostrils and our brains went wild with this sight, which held no comparison to anything previously seen in both of our pasts. The stimulus was amazing and we watched as a crane would slowly lower pallet after pallet of giant Ganesha statues along with eight to ten men to the waters surface. The men would then exert five minutes of extreme effort to get the statue dumped into the water. The energy, which was emitted from the crowd, was absolutely amazing as thousands of people were all celebrating this festival for Ganesha. The only thing I can compare it to would be New Years Eve at Times Square, only on a smaller scale.

Again, Michael and I being the only white people we could spot, stood out. And because of that we got a lot of attention ourselves, no doubt making people wonder why a couple of white guys would want to observe this festival of Ganesha. Group after group of Ganesha dunkers would stop by us and ask us to take their picture. A few even erupted into cheers upon hearing that we liked India, and had us dance with them. After about 45 minutes of watching the dunking, which was going to continue for hours, Michael and I went across the street to visit the Ganesha temple and then made our way home, with people stopping us on the street every five minutes or so wanting to talk with us and have us document the occasion by taking a picture that in all likelihood would never be seen by their eyes.

It was an intense evening to be sure, and the experience is one whose essence can truly not be given by text and photo alone.

The adventures never stop and I am continually showered with bounty upon bounty. For all of those whose prayers are directed this way, they are felt, and reciprocated generously.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mission Accomplished

Caitlin Johnson played an integral role in the process of preparing me for my trip to India. Caitlin had given a year of volunteer work for the Bahá’i faith in India a few years back, and therefore was quite well versed in Indian culture. She gave me tips on food, dress, language, mosquitoes, among many other things. I do not mean to insult her humbleness by devoting a few paragraphs to her, however I feel it quite necessary in order to tell this tale. Among the activities she told me I needed to do during my stay in India was to listen to a certain Mr. Afshin give a talk. “A prolific speaker he is”, she said (the staff at current time is not able to give 100% assurance that Caitlin actually said that, so please disregard the quotations, they are only for effect – ed.) “You must see him speak!” Caitlin then asked me if I would be willing to bring a gift across seas to give to Mr. Afshin, who resides in Bangalore. I let her know that I would be more than wiling, and for the last few months, have had a package in tow for Mr. Afshin & Family. This last Saturday I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Afshin, and their son Naim at a talk he gave on the subject of “The nonexistence of evil”.

It was held at a weekly gathering hosted by various Bahá’is known as “Open House”, where people gather and discuss certain topics. It was held on the terrace of a very beautiful house, and as the evening went on, a discussion that was quite enlightening was passed among the some 30 participants. Mr. Afshin is indeed quite a prolific speaker and I felt honored to be able to meet him.

So without Further ado, I give you photographic evidence that Caitlin’s package did indeed make it safely into the hands of Mr. Afshin.

The range of experiences I have had since arriving in India are so many, I thought I would make a quick list of things I have taken note of that differ from the states:

The toilet paper rolls (when they have them) are a bit smaller than the ones in the states.

Traffic morphs around any obstacle it may have, making it safer than in America to stand in the middle of two lanes of speeding vehicles.

IST (India standard time, the time zone we are in) also can stand for “India Stretchable time”

I wake up to the Muslim call to prayer every morning, and hear it often throughout the day.

Even middle-class families can afford to have a maid come to clean and cook everyday.

The bills of India's money (the rupee) decrease in size as they decrease in value.

People of every religion can co-exist peacefully with one another, as there might be a mosque, a cathedral, a temple, and a church all on the same block.

If you are white, people will stare.

The vehicle drivers oftentimes turn off their engines at a red light, I assume to save petrol.

I am refered to as "Boss" by most people I do business with.

Indians are the most hospitable, welcoming people I have ever been around.

Food is not eaten with utensils most of the time, but with your right hand. This is a practice I have gotten quite used to doing.

Haggling is a normal occurrence and most of the time you can get things for cheaper if you are willing to negotiate.

There are piles of trash on some streets.

A slum with people living in tents may be only two kilometers from an upscale neighborhood.

There is no posted speed limit anywhere throughout the city.

There are many more fruits and vegetables on the planet besides the standard fare known to Americans.

You do see cows on the side of the road all over the city.

People will try to take advantage of you, assuming that because you are foreign you have lots of money.

Because you are foreign, people are interested in why you have come to India, and are eager to show you the best that their country has to offer.

Little children seem to stare the most, and are the most curious and have very little inhibitions when it comes to talking to you. They seem to make a game of trying to touch the “white guy” as they will come up to me and want to shake my hand, and when they do they will run off laughing as they catch up with their friends. I carry a small compass on me to help me with my sense of direction, and the children are often fascinated with such a simple object, wanting me to explain to them how it works and why I have it, the same with my mobile phone. I love stopping to talk with a child who has asked me my name, and often find that within minutes I have a large group around me wanting to know “What food is popular in America?” “What sport is popular in America?” and “Why did you come to India?” I was in a neighborhood the other night talking with a group of children for nearly an hour and they asked me upon leaving if I was going to come back. I noted the location of the neighborhood and have every intention of returning to see them again. What beautiful characters children have, I now perhaps understand why ‘Abdu’l-Baha loved them so dearly.

India continues to excite, and having a city full of experiences waiting at my fingertips to be explored is an exhilarating notion to say the least.

I appreciate all of your comments, I love you all and think of you often.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

A day of adventure

ICMIS, the institute where I will be attending classes for the next year, is where I spent a majority of my time yesterday. I met my fellow students; there are 8 of us. It is a small number, but we seem to get along quite well and will no doubt have a good time learning about India together. We officially registered for classes and received our mobile phones. My class schedule is as follows:

9:00 - 10:30: Indian/British Literature
10:45 - 12:15: Hindu Mythology
12:30 - 2:00: Hindi as a foreign Language

9:00 – 10:30: Religions of India
10:45 – 12:15: Indian Civilization

10:45 – 12:15: Hindu Mythology
12:30 - 2:00: Indian/British Literature

9:00 – 10:30: Religions of India
10:45 – 12:15: Indian Civilization
12:30 - 2:00: Hindi as a foreign Language

I am looking forward to starting my classes, they seem like an interesting bunch.

I received, as I stated earlier, my mobile phone yesterday. They don’t use the term “cell” that often as it is referred to as your “mobile”. It is an interesting system they have. Unlike in the states where you join a carrier and have a plan with so many minutes a month, over here when you receive your phone, initially the only people you can call are others with your same service provider, in this case “reliance”. You have to “charge” your phone by going to a phone shop and buying minutes for your phone. And also, unlike the states, it is cheaper to text message (one rupee per text) than to call someone, leading to texting being a preferred means of communicating.

Our tuition includes a ride to and from our homes to the school, and it is roughly a half hour commute from the “heart of the city” to the outskirts of Bangalore, where our school is located. After we were dropped back home yesterday from orientation, Michael (my flat mate) and I decided to walk Tara (another girl attending classes) home. Tara lives in Cook town, and Michael and I in Frazer Town, it is probably 2-3 km to Tara’s flat. As it is monsoon season here, weather can be very unpredictable and it can start pouring rain very unexpectedly. As we were walking it started to rain, Tara and Michael spotted a church across the street and people were entering, we decided to dip into the church A. because it was about to pour, B. because we though it would be interesting to see a Christian service in India, which is majority Hindu. As we were waved into the church and sat down in a pew we waited for the service to begin. As people kept entering, we noticed how immaculate everyone was looking, men in dress pants and shirts, bright yellows and blues, greens and reds. Sari’s so beautiful it made you happy to look at them, and also very aware of how much you stuck out, with just jeans and a t-shirt, and white skin. I couldn’t help but feel as if many different people were staring at us. Three white foreigners with foreign clothing amidst a sea of brown skin and colorful garments.

Eventually the flood of people entering the church slowed down, and the crowd got quiet. At this point we had been in the church for around 20 minutes and had started to wonder why they were having a service on Friday night. One of us in the group made the comment “that would be funny if this was someone’s wedding”, and not a moment after the words finished leaving the lips the wedding march started playing on the organ. As the couple walked down the center aisle, Michael and I exchanged glances and burst out laughing, not knowing what to make of the situation. Here we were at a complete strangers wedding! The service was mostly in a foreign language (which we learned later was Telagu) with a few words of English spoken in between sections.

There was a wedding photographer and a man taking video the whole time. As the man with the video camera was sweeping the crowds we couldn’t help but think of what the couple would think when they saw us in the crowd on their wedding video. And at one point the photographer came to our pew and took a very close up photo of Tara, Michael and I. We sat through the entire service with people catching us in their eyes every so often, giving us strange looks. We just kept laughing the whole time at the awkwardness of the situation!

As the bride and groom left the church after the wedding, the preacher tracked us down and he invited us into his office. He bought us all sprites and we talked for a good half hour about the church, which was the Church of South India. He told us that he thought we may have been colleagues of the man getting married and had thrown in the few words of English so that we could follow what was going on. It was at that moment we realized how easy we must have stuck out, as we were close to the back in a good sized church, yet the preacher had noticed us right away! As we said our goodbyes we exchanged mobile numbers and he invited us to dinner at his house sometime in the future.

We then walked Tara home and hung out at her flat for about an hour. As Michael and I walked back to our apartment, we couldn’t help but realize what a fun time we had had that night.

It is only when you venture out when you get stories that you will tell when you are ninety.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Safina Hotel

When I stepped foot into terminal E in Boston, I knew I was in for a treat. A multiplicity of languages being spoken, wetting the appetite for more culture de internationale. And as I swiftly passed through security, for the first time using my passport, I felt a glimmer of the feeling, which must have encompassed many of the great traveler’s of the worlds past. I boarded my plane, which was an hour delayed, and immediately was greeted: “Bonjour Monsieur”, for I was flying Air France. A
6.5-hour flight, it seemed to break all stereotypes of cross-Atlantic air trips, for it was exciting, scary, invigorating, and very, very liberating. Time was passed in part by indulging myself in the on-board movie: Mission Impossible 3, which, suffice it to say, made it obvious why it did not do so hot in the states. The delightful dualscreen handheld offered by Nintendo also served its purpose of taking time and somehow magically making it disappear.
As our airliner flew over the city of Paris, France, approaching Charles De Gaulle airport (Gaulle pronounced as Gogh, as in Vincent Van) It was cloudy, and as I was not in a window seat, did not get a proper view of the city from the air. The airport itself was an experience not to be forgotten. A lonely, deserted hollow feeling came from just looking at it. The countryside around it resembled more closely my native state of Nebraska than anything else I could compare it to. As our plane landed, and we began to exit the plane, a feeling struck me, “you are in Europe, France to be exact, and you won’t set foot on American soil again for nearly one year.” What an exciting realization, if perhaps not a bit surreal. Coming off our plane, we (the passengers) were met with a barren calm, for we were not at a terminal; in fact, a terminal was nowhere near us. There was only a bus with digital letters staring at us reading: Boston. As we loaded the bus, I could not help but overhear a few grumbling complaints.

The Bus took us to terminal 2E and from there it was relatively complex figuring out the route to terminal 2F, which is where my connecting flight to Bangalore, India would be. We took another bus all the way around the facility, which resembled a massive service station more than an airport, and wound our way to 2F. After an overly long wait due to security screening, I boarded my flight and was off, after about an hour delay. The flight to India was much more interesting, and I can attribute that fact to being in a window seat, yes a deafening position, when compared to an aisle seat, but well worth the added noise for the ability to see the terrain. We flew over Germany, the middle east north of the Mediterranean, over Iran, where the blessed footsteps of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh walked. We flew over Tehran, and Tabriz, and, at least from the vantage point of an eagle, I was able to view the countryside that birthed the Bahá'i Faith. As I looked down on villages and cities, I wondered to myself if the Báb had ever delivered his message there, or if any early Dawn-breakers of this beloved faith had given their lives upon that spot, an ethereal moment to say the least.

As the sky grew dark, and the lights below started to pervade my pupil, it hit me like a train strikes an aluminum can, I was going to India. As I looked through the window after seeing we were nearing Bangalore, I, for the first time, saw the lights of the city, which I would call home for the next 9 months. As the plane landed, and we departed to go through customs, a profound feeling of adventure was swarming throughout my body. After a quick check of the passport, and a slip of paper detailing whether or not I had and meat or dairy products on me, I was off to get my baggage. Bangalore’s airport, until recently, did not accept international flights, however, due to the enormous growth recently experienced by this city they added longer runways, and have turned the airport into a makeshift terminal until the new airport is completed in 2008. This was evidenced by the luggage carousel, which resembled a treadmill more than a carousel, having to be closely monitored by no less than 4 employees who had to keep the bags from jamming the moving track. As I ran my luggage through one more x-ray scan, and submitted one last slip of paper to the customs check, I was free to explore my new territory, or at least look for the person who was supposed to pick me up from the airport.

I felt like a celebrity walking outside of the airport, at nearly 1:30 in the morning there were swarms of people waiting on the sides of the ramp the passengers walked down as they went outside, each with a piece of paper indicating who they had come to get. All looking at you and showing their slips of papers towards you, a feeling of extreme excitement could be felt. A quick scan revealed no one had a piece of paper with my name on it, which resorted in my transformation into “Survival Thaddeus” mode. Roughly seven different taxi drivers approached me, all competing for my business. One particularly stubborn bloke followed me around as I searched through the crowds for someone with a piece of paper with my name on it. As the crowds started to thin out, Rajik, the taxi driver, made sure to let me know many times that it was no trouble taking me to a hotel that night, and that because of India’s approaching independence it was very dangerous to be out this late, which, as he pointed out, was evidenced by the entrenched guard at the entrance to the airport wielding a machine gun on a tri-pod behind sandbags.

Well his stubbornness paid off, as after about 40 minutes of search and wait, my ride did not seem to appear, now the adventure was beginning. I said a quick prayer, put my trust in God and told Rajik that he could take me to a hotel. He introduced me to his Boss Bapu and the three of us climbed into a taxi, the smell of which reminded me of my Grandpa Herman’s pickup truck I would ride in as a small child. As I rode through the deserted streets of Bangalore at 3:00 in the morning, I couldn’t help but feel as If I was Magellan, Columbus, or Marco Polo, exploring uncharted territory. I arrived at the Safina hotel, and after haggling for a taxi price, which I’m sure is much more than locals would pay, was able to go in and get a room for the evening, room 303, which would be my first room in India that I would sleep in.I struggled with the phone to try to call home, but to no avail and was unable to win the battle. I was feeling very tired and worn out, I said the Tablet of Ahmad, donned my iPod and went to sleep. I awoke to my cell-phone alarm and was quickly paged by the front desk letting me know breakfast was ready, after a quick lesson by housekeeping on how to make a phone call, I decided I would go down and eat my first meal on this sub-continent. It was great. I was then picked up by a man from the institution I am attending and brought to my host mother's house. It is as she says "in the heart of Bangalore" and is very urban. Constant traffic noise, and Indian drivers use their horns a lot. Here are a couple photos taken from my window in my room which i'm staying.