Monday, February 25, 2002


Email from India Feb 25 02

February 25, 2002

Hi Everybody! Peter has been writing our journal emails with my input. This one is from me, with some of my thoughts and observations. Hope you find it interesting.

Here I am in a country so different, in every way from my own. Everyday I feel as though I am participating in a National Geographic special. My life has become one that I used to watch on TV at home.

First, the poverty, the noise, the crowds, the dirt, garbage and smells are all overwhelming. Visiting villages where the children, as young as 6, work long hours in the silk looms, are malnourished, underweight, below average height, have respiratory diseases, and little chance for a better life is difficult to see. The organization we are working with is doing a good job to get some of these children out of the looms. However, the poverty is so great that the task is huge. Families essentially rent their children to the loom owners for advances of money. They never can pay it back so they keep borrowing more and the children keep working it off. The loom owners keep paying since they need the labor and it is so cheap to employ children instead of adults. The children are also more pliable and can be kept working for longer hours with no breaks. I will never again complain about working too hard.

Walking in the streets of the town where we are living, or anywhere else, is a real chore. We are constantly accosted by beggars, touts, taxi drivers, children wanting to sell us pens, people wanting us to go shopping with them, etc. And that is only on the sidewalk, which is limited to, broken concrete or sand. The noise is deafening both inside and outside. We have noticed people shout all the time since it is impossible to be heard above the din of the traffic. Constant horn blowing everywhere. The air horns on the busses are the worst and they blow them continuously. On the back of every truck the words “blow horn” are printed and everyone pays attention. Peter and I are the only foreigners who take walks every evening and the whole town knows who we are, where we are, at any given time, and how many times we almost get hit by vehicles since the cars, trucks, busses, motorbikes and bicycles seem to go every which way, with not much sense of direction. At the end of everyday we feel we have accomplished something just getting back to the hotel safely. The people we are working with are always telling us to be careful and watch when we cross the streets.

We have just moved from room 208 to room 203 in the hotel. The reason for the move was that 208 was above the restaurant. Since all the dishes including cups are metal and they are washed outside below 208 the noise was terrible. The dishwashers throw them on the ground and then throw them from one large vat of soapy water to the next for rinsing and occasionally throw them at each other. Clattering all the time. The clanging is deafening and it goes on till midnight and starts again at 5 the next morning. 203 faces the same direction but overlooks the parking lot. Now all we have to contend with are the cars backing up and since every car plays music when it backs up we hear snippets of Jingle Bells, ABC’s, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and others we have not yet been able to identify. The first week we were here we stuffed cotton in our ears when we went to bed so we could sleep.

We have breakfast and dinner in the hotel restaurant, which is very good. Since the level of hygiene is not very high here we feel safer eating only in places we have been told are ok. In Thailand we ate from street vendors all the time and it was fine. Here we would not eat street food. At every meal we have the assistance of at least 2 supervisors, 3-4 waiters and 2-3 busboys. They gather around and try to help us order and eat. We have not had one private conversation at our meals yet. By the way, people here eat with their hands so Peter is following and enjoying it very much. I have convinced people to give me a spoon. I have told Peter he will have to give this up when we get home. This morning the restaurant manager wanted to know why I was only having coffee, he thought I was sick. I told him I was too fat and needed to eat less. He said, “No, no you are not fat only liberal”.

Every morning we ask to have the room cleaned. We have been told to stay in the room while it is being cleaned, since there is so much poverty things get stolen frequently. Whenever we ask they say, “Ok, 5 minutes” which could mean anything from immediately to several hours. Indian time is very different from American time. Things seem to move slower and no one is very concerned about when things happen. Meetings called for 9am often don’t start till 10:30. That seems to be all right with everyone but us. We are constantly nudging people to get things done. This is very hard for Peter since he can’t sit still for a minute and his level of patience (as many of you know) is very low. By the way he taught a computer class to a group of RIDE staff people last week and it was great. None of them had ever touched a computer and they were so excited and interested it made this whole trip worthwhile.

We are learning many things. For instance, we now know a lot more about Hinduism and social customs of the south Indian people. We learned last week that almost all marriages are arranged, very few are love marriages. One of the RIDE staffers got married a month ago. His family arranged the marriage. When I asked if he had a good wife he quickly said “yes” but then quietly said “maybe”. Meaning time will tell.

I am having a hard time getting used to people catering to us. Foreigners especially Americans carry a lot of prestige. Even if it is unwarranted. Wherever we go we have a driver who opens doors, closes doors, carries packages and waits, no matter how long. Wherever we eat there are people to help us. Even at the office where we eat lunch one of the young women makes sure to pull the chilies out of our food before we eat it. We are never allowed to carry anything. Someone is always there to assist. Clothes are washed and ironed for next to nothing. They may not always get clean since the water is so polluted but they are all pressed. It is done with an old iron heated with charcoal.

All of this said, you must understand that the people here are wonderful. They are kind, generous (even if they have very little) and helpful. We have been catered to, worried about and in general treated very well.

RIDE has started a number of women’s self help groups. These groups are made up of mothers of the child laborers. Most of these women have also worked in the looms and are illiterate. Many could not even sign their name and now they have been taught some basic skills. They also have been encouraged to start businesses of their own with small loans from the groups. Many now have their own looms, and don’t use child labor. Some have opened small stores and others have become tailors. Most important they have become educated about women’s rights and how important education is for their children.

I will end now since I have to save some things for later. I can only say this is a wonderful experience and the ability to make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of these people particularly the children is extremely rewarding.


Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Email from India Feb 10 02

Feb 19, 2002

Dear Everyone,

Hope you are all well. We are fine here in India. There is much to tell you, both anecdotal, and about what we are learning and doing.

First, here is a normal day so far. I (Peter) wake about 6 and exercise in the room. Usually we have kept the AC on all night unless the power has gone off which seems to be every few hours. It usually takes a few minutes to get hot water, or sometimes there isn’t any, so thank goodness we are in a warm climate. About 7:15 or so we go down next door to eat in the Veg restaurant, (the only kind here in Kanchipuram). This morning we had coffee, I had idiapum(rice noodles with a vegetable sauce for dipping) and Hinda had “bread toast butter jam”. Cost:Rs 44, about 90 cents. Last night for dinner we spent $4 which included pineapple shake for you know who, mineral water, biryani, (rice with vegetables) raitha – yogurt with cucumbers, puris, and egg rolls. At dinner or breakfast, there have been up to 7 waiters standing by and staring, suggesting things, asking questions, etc. Eating is definitely not the place to have a private,quiet, romantic dinner. After breakfast we go back to the room and ask for a “boy” to clean the room. A boy comes with the supervisor and we stand by while he cleans. If we were’nt there, many of our things would be gone. This is because the poverty makes the lure of so many things too enticing. One boy makes the bed, then we wait for another one to sweep, then another one to bring towels, and another to clean the bathroom, and another to bring fresh toilet paper. Sometines we bring the laundry downstairs to be washed by the “dhobi”. Avout $2 for basketful, but beware that your beige pants don’t come back purple. Well, purple is a nice color after all, and tan is a bit drab. After cleaning, we wait for our “auto rickshaw driver” to take us to work, about 2 km for Rs 30 – 62 cents. An auto rickshaw is a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a little roof and bench seat. The horn rubber that the driver squeezes continually, and so does everyone else with their horn: bicycle bells, truck and bus air horns, car horns, etc. The ride is harrowing to say the least. In the paper the other day, just in this state alone in the first 6 months of last year there were 37,000 accidents, and 6,000 deaths. So far so good. We work at RIDE. Ride is located on the second floor of a 3 floor house. RIDE’s director and family live downstairs, the office is on the middle floor, and the 3rd floor is being renovated to put in an experimental loom. We have a little room to work in with a fan, light, table and our laptop which we are donating to RIDE. Our laptop and Sabrina’s laptop are their first ones. Thanks Sabrina – they love it!

We developed a survey about the program which we are presently administering to staff, families, doctors, government officials and loom owners. Thus far we have met with several staff and about 6 teachers which means that we have visited 6 RIDE’s Bridge Schools. You would not recognize it as a school. They are in extremely poor, rural villages. Some have no electric. I guess the size of the room to be about 10 x 12, and in it are 25 – 35 children and the teacher. The children are from 6 – 13 or 14, and most were taken from the loom factories by RIDE. While there, they worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. for just a few Rs per day, and some tea and rice. Their backs are hunched, they have carpal tunnel syndrome, etc., etc. The children sit on the floor, either dirt,or concrete and have a small slate board and chalk. There is also a blackboard in the room which the teacher uses. It is a chore for the teacher to go around the village each day to get the parents to send the children to the school because if they send them to the loom factory, then they will earn money for the family. However, some children do go to the school and after a few months or so, they will be able to go to a government school. What is this project all about? One staff person said it best: “Every child needs to have a childhood”.

We visited a few looms and will continue to see more. Needless to say that the silk saris are exquisite, but the sad fact is that children work in most of the looms for practically nothing. Here is how it works. If a family needs money, they get an advance of say Rs 2,000 from the loom owner, and then the child works it off. Imagine your 6 year old doing this – forever! Some of the saris are very intricate and the designs are woven top and bottom. Only the children are capable because of their size to sit on the floor and do that work. We calculated that some of the loom families that sell their products to silk wholesalers make about $1.50 per day! Needless to say, the loom owners are not happy about RIDE taking the children out of the loom factories. The entire economy of this area is based on silk weaving. People come from all over India, Asia, and around the world to buy silk saris here.

We have also designed a basic computer class to teach to the RIDE staff. Only the director knows how to use a computer, but we will begin teaching others soon 1 or 2 evenings a week. We are also working on some fundraising things and we will help with management in general.

Last night we each bought sandals. Total for both was $8.60 and they are nice!

One of the Internet Cafes we found goes from one porn site to another non stop, but it is the fastest. So the choice is either wait for the porn pages to go away, or settle for a slower browser in another place. What would your choice be?

Outside our window we see lots of monkeys running around and stealing food from the restaurant. There are a 3 or 4 monkey families here in town, about 50 or 60 monkeys. Fun to watch. Also beautiful green parrots in the temples. Temples are very old – up 3,500 years old and very interesting.

The women are envious of Hinda because she has pockets and saris don’t have any. Usually only men can put their hands in the pockets, but so can Hinda.

Every vehicle has a backup warning tone. The other night (90 degrees) and we hear jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way …. Very funny.

In the US there are speed bumps, in Israel there are “bumpers”, and here there are “speed breakers”.

Anyway, even though this is a very very 3rd world environment, and as we told you before, very dirty, very unsanitary, very crowded, it is also very interesting, and the people are very nice, helpful, and friendly. We are happy to be here and happy to be of some help. And, we are presenting a good image of our country.

This is getting too long, so we will try to send it to you and see what happens., Let us know if you get it. Keep the home fires burning for us!

Peter and Hinda

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Email from India Feb 14 02

February 14,2002


Dear All,

Well, here we are in Kanchipuram, India. We want to give you some initial impressions about this part of India, and about RIDE – the organization that we are working with. As time goes by, we will continue to write and tell you what we are doing, how things are going, etc.

We are in Southern India, about 80 km SE of Chennai, (Madras). In this part of India, (Tamil Nadu State), the primary language is Tamil. Even though English is spoken as a second language, the accent is so strong that sometimes it is a little difficult to understand, but with patience and a little sign language, pointing, etc., it all works out.

First and foremost, India is different from any other place we have ever been, and we have traveled or lived in many different places in the world. This is a very very poor country. It is very crowded, and very dirty – lots of garbage, poor or no sanitation, unhygienic. While the poverty is overpowering, the real problem is ignorance, and thus, the long term solution really needs to be education. People are ignorant about the problems of poor hygiene, the treatment of women, child labor, and so many other things.

Kanchipuram is small by Indian standards, about 2 lacs, (1 lac = 100,000, thus about 200,000 people). Very crowded, kind of like Times Square in NY on New Year’s Eve. It is hard to describe what driving is like, except to say that mayhem does not describe it. Big trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, 3 wheeled motor cycle taxis (auto rickshaws), busses, pedestrians, ox carts, horses, and more, all going every which way. And every one of these vehicles, except for pedestrians of course are constantly blowing their horns. So, there is mayhem and cacophony! Each time we get in a car or auto rickshaw, we are frightened. This is the only place where we have ever gone where I (Peter) am really afraid to drive, and I (Hinda) would not drive with him if he did.

The food here in Southern India is mostly vegetarian, and very delicious. We are eating all different kinds of things. Here, most people eat with the fingers of their right hand, rather than using a utensil and then wash their hand. It should be obvious to you why only the right hand. This morning, breakfast cost us Rs 67. (66 Rupees). Currently, there are 48 Rupees to $1,so breakfast cost us about $1.38 and it was good, filling, and healthy. We eat in a restaurant next to the hotel where we are staying, and usually there is a supervisor, waiter, busboy who takes our order, brings us the food, cleans the table, etc. At the same time, there are usually 3,4, or even 5 waiters observing and making sure the food is good, etc. We have noticed that here in India, there are usually 2 – 3 people to do every job. One takes the order, one writes the order, one brings the food. The first one brings the check, the second one checks the check and the 3rd one gives you the check. Perhaps that is one way to get full employment – job sharing!

At least for the present, we are staying in a hotel because it has a western toilet – something that is important to us. The room is air conditioned (after a fashion). The entire bathroom becomes the shower, so make sure the toilet seat is up, and anything that is soluble is out of harms reach. The TV has CNN/BBC and a bunch of Indian stations which play mostly soaps. When we want the room cleaned, 2 “boys” (men) come with the supervisor and clean. On a serious note, India as we said is very poor, so it better for us to stay in the room when people are cleaning so that they aren’t enticed to take anything. For the first three days they changed the sheets everyday but did not change the pillow cases. We have discovered that we need to ask them to do whatever we want done and not depend on them doing a cleaning job. They are very accommodating as soon as we ask.

This is our second day at RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education). The Director is Jeyaraj, and his wife Britto are the two key staff people, and then there are another 50 or so. We have met about a dozen so far, and are just beginning to learn names. Briefly, RIDE is trying to eradicate child labor in the silk weaving industry here in Kanchipuram, teach about human rights, women’s rights, and help villages develop self help projects. We’ll tell you more later – very interesting and exciting.

Our first assignment is to do an evaluation of the child labor project. We have already drafted the methodology and the first set of questions, and during the next couple of weeks we will be conducting the evaluation with staff, teachers, government workers, family members, and even loom owners. Then we will review the evaluation with all concerned and help develop an action plan which ultimately we hope will lead to any appropriate and necessary changes.

In addition, we are going to do some fundraising training, and we have already come up with a very exciting idea that we hope can be implemented, and if successful will lead to a source of revenue for RIDE. We will tell you more as we develop the plan. It is still very preliminary and we don’t want to let the cat out of the bag just yet. Stay tuned!

We will also try to help develop a plan for a transitional place for the children leaving the factories to live while they attend “bridge schools” before they return to their own homes, and try to lay the groundwork to raise about $10,000 to purchase a van for RIDE.

We have been asked to evaluate their annual report as well and we will be going that in the next few weeks. Perhaps we will help them write a new one – at least help them with an outline.

Yesterday we attended the monthly meeting of a Women’s Federation that RIDE began and sat in on a lecture about TB – how to recognize it, treatment, encouragement not to hide the symptoms, etc. There were about 40 women there and they came from several villages around Kanchipuram. They were asked to pass on the information to other people in the villages.

Next week we are going to visit the schools and loom factories and see these child laborers. As you know, we have a grandson. He will be 5 years old soon. Some of the children who work in the loom factories are the age of our grandson. That is not in our frame of reference, and I suspect not in yours either. This is what this is all about. This is what happens in much of the world, and if we can help a bit, that is good. You know what they say: “If you help just one person, you are helping the world”. We will try and perhaps you will be able to help also.

There is a lot to do and a short time to do it, but we have already begun and we look forward to being able to be of help.

Today is Valentine’s Day so we bought several cakes at the local bakery and brought them to the office. People were so happy they are making a party this afternoon for all the employees so we can share with them.

Everyone that we have met – on the job, in the hotels, on the street, in the restaurants are very friendly and helpful. Indians are very friendly people and very cooperative. (Peter, as usual, has developed a great relationship with some of the young women working at RIDE. They all treat him as though he is their father and make sure he has everything he needs. They follow him around the office making sure things are in order.) I am photographing a lot of people and it is easy to do because of their very friendly attitude. The Indian people are very handsome, very beautiful and have a lot of character in their faces.

The people here at RIDE are very dedicated to their mission. They work hard, it seems like all the time, and in addition to what they do at work, they have a lot of personal involvement in helping people and families.

Some of the people who work here are very very poor and come from a very low caste, and Jeyaraj and Britto do much for them. One of the young women has been “assigned” to take care of me (Peter) and watches my every move. Inside the house no one wears shoes, so sometimes it is a little un-nerving to all of a sudden see Cristina Elizabeth behind me because I can’t hear her coming.

One final anecdote. We don’t want to be disrespectful, but there is a habit here that to us is very funny. When you are speaking to an Indian person, their head is continually bobbing around, kind of in a circle. It is like our nodding, but to us it looks like the bobble head dolls. Very funny ,and takes a little getting used to. If we come home bobbling our heads, eating with our fingers, and oh yes, pouring water from a glass into our mouth – no laughing!

That’s all for now. We’ll write again soon.

Hinda and Peter

Sunday, February 10, 2002