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Eating without utensils 101

This was my third blog entry from the ShantiSalaam tour that I co-organized with Hawah and V:shal in 2006-2007 to promote communcal harmony in South Asia.

December 15, 2006 at 3:23 a.m. – We just arrived in Sidhbari, a town near Dharamsala (the seat in exile of the Dalai Lama).  I couldn't see as much as I might have hoped given the hour, but I could tell that it's stunning: a city of surprisingly new architecture nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Our elevation is about 1,250 meters (roughly 4,000 feet), which of course leaves it a bit on the chilly side.  Hawah just finished tucking in Sanjay.  It was cute.

We got a flat tire on the way here, maybe an hour ago.  Our driver, Ram (pronounced "Rahm"), pulled aside to change the tire, and we got out to check out the sky.  Vishal, Hawah and I each saw at least 10 shooting stars in as many minutes, some of which were stunning in their brightness and length.  I saw no fewer than 14!  That might equal the number I'd witnessed over the course of my life to that point.  I had to dig deep to come up with new wishes.

The rest of the drive was also fascinating.  I sat in the back in order to elevate my foot, and was glad at times to have the easy option of avoiding looking forward.  Traffic here is not only chaotic, but also terrifying – and night driving took both to a whole other level.  Picture a 3-lane highway, with traffic moving in both directions.  We'd round a turn, see white lights (including lots of high beams through which our driver would somehow maintain his sight) occupying the entire road in front of us, edge to the left and basically hope that whoever was in our way moved before we got there.  When we passed people, Ram would literally overtake as many cars as he could until forced to get back to the left by oncoming traffic.  I thought I might lose my lunch once or twice….

We've discovered a few issues in Indian current events relating to the aims we're trying to promote.  For instance, The India Express reported about the creation of some suburban "townships" in Bangalore that threaten to displace 25,000 farmers.  The proposed nuclear deal with the U.S. has been receiving a great deal of press, and we saw an interesting article in the Times of India about the trouble experienced by Kashmiris seeking passports to travel abroad.

Last night was our last in Delhi until our return in mid-January (except for Vishal's DJ set next Friday, 12/22), capping a great start to the tour.  We had to cancel one gig the day before on account of a scheduling conflict, but the final event was a fitting send off. Vishal spun a DJ set to close out a party for a marriage event (one of 33,000 happening in Delhi that night alone!), while the rest of us basically vibed out and offered the partygoers – whom reportedly included several ministers – a taste of American counterculture.

My foot's been swollen again, which offered an excuse to bust out my cane again, along with a leopard-printtopi (traditional cap; think Jamiroquai).  I'm back in the position of being able to dance better than I can walk, which seemed to make an impression on folks fairly quickly.  A young boy around 10-11 years old came over at one point and asked if he could dance with me, and we put on a bit of a show with a young girl around 6 with whom we made a triangle.  The boy had clearly been watching Britney Spears videos and such, but it was cute to see him get his groove thing on. 

Our crew looked pretty solid, too.  Sanjay was decked out in a coordinated outfit; Hawah rocked a shirt & tie; Vishal had a full on ornate traditional khameez with a shawl; and I rocked an Arabian thobe that Mo gave me, along with a Kashmiri red vest that I bought in Pahar Ganj.  We admired the various fine feathered females of the two families, several of whom took a liking to us, and we all laughed from time to time at the consistent inability of seemingly everyone to tell Hawah and I apart.  He overheard someone who apparently said, "There are two of them!"

The night witnessed a great deal of silliness, from Vishal goading people into taking whiskey shots (he even chased one with a whiskey & coke, which I found hysterically funny) to Hawah and Akshay wrestling in the dojo.  I captured some ridiculous video of Hawah spinning on Akshay's heavy bag, rocking out some monkey-style acrobats resembling Kung Fu.  We kicked it until the early morning, closing down the "official" party and then enjoying a series of fascinating conversations with young aspiring Indian leaders about relationships, development paradigms, and culture.

Leaving was interesting, in that it not only resembled the rush to escape DC for my flight to Delhi in the first place, but also presaged the beginning of our "roughing it."  I'd been expecting the trip to entail some degree of ardor, but Akshay's place is quite literally the most luxurious place I've ever stayed.  It was kind of like starting the tour with a brief stay in Club Med.

11: 42 p.m. – Today was spectacular.  First of all, it's beautiful here in the foothills of the Himalayas; the landscape is like nothing I've ever witnessed before.  And we had our first workshop, centering on a visual arts with a group of kids from 5-10 years of age at a school down the street from the rural development center where we're hosting an 8-hour workshop tomorrow.  It was priceless: the kids included mischievous pre-pubescent boys, adorable toddlers, and little girls – all of whom had their hair in long tails and red ribbons.  They drew sketches of images that for them conjured feelings of comfort and peace, which we collected at the end to share with their peers on the other side of the Indo-Pak border when we visit Pakistan the week after next.

We also had a visit to a local village this evening, where we sat in on a local men's group meeting and talked to them at length.  Earlier in the day, we'd gotten an informal tour of the facilities here, which includes a volunteer legal cell staffed by 3 social workers who together manage a caseload involving over 350 clients – mostly women being preyed upon in one fashion or another by their husbands, their relatives, the state, or strangers.  Jyoti, who runs the cell, spoke to me at length about her experience, and particularly explored the difficulties faced by women who depend on their husbands economically.  I found it striking that in addition to a handful of rape cases, a number of divorce & maintenance cases, and a higher number of harassment cases, there were no fewer than 150 cases involving marital abuse.  It seems to be an especially widespread issue here.

I had a fun experience learning to eat with my hands today, after inspiring at least 4 or 5 people at lunch this afternoon to ask me if I needed a spoon.  I could practically feel the dhal dripping down my beard.  I'm quite used to using bread, like rotichapati or naan to scoop food, but shedding the intermediary layer and diving straight into rice and curry with my hands alone was something I'd not done before.  Vishal taught me a trick, though: hold the food with the tips of your fingers, and use your thumb to basically shovel it into your mouth.  It worked quite well: I think I ended up wearing only a quarter to a third of my dinner!

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