Corporate Runaway Turns Mother Theresa in India

“Taking off your shoes means the gods are smiling on you, “ said Prakesh.

I had trouble with that.  Not the god part, the shoes.

The infamous shoes

It’s customary to remove your shoes when entering a home or shop in Maharashtra.  It’s customary to do the equivalent when entering someone’s abode in Canada, so the fact that I struggled to part with my flip-flops was illogical.

Spock would have a field day with me.  What was I afraid of?

Western comfort, which I assumed was a flimsy concept roared in my head.  You’re afraid of lice, pieces of glass, fleas from the dog, disease!

Despite the queasy stirrings of my belly, I slipped them off to step inside Child Haven’s office where Kavita waited.

I attempted to blame my irrational repulsion on jet lag.  Having escaped it during my Copenhagen and London jaunts, I napped most of the way from Mumbai airport  to the location of my home for the next 3 months.   Prakesh interrupted me mid-snort to announce our arrival.

Already?

‘Where’ is a parcel of land off the highway.

Child Haven gates

Our arrival felt rushed and surreal, how I imagine a gaudy, Vegas wedding might play out.  Two inebriated people in club wear loudly demanding to be reunited in matrimony when they only met 5 hours ago.  The chubby, sequined Elvis and pre-recorded chapel music oblige them.

The Child Haven office certainly wasn’t a chapel.  Kavita and Prakesh were far from inebriated, but manageress and assistant manager of the home, married a lot longer than 5 hours – 7 years to be exact.  They are proud parents of two spunky girls, Priya, age 5 and Supriya, 11 months.

They delighted me immediately, it was the grainy substance on my feet that didn’t.

To give you an idea, the home is situated before Pen, on route to Alibag, a region called Savarsai, approximately 3 hours from Mumbai.
View Larger Map

The Child Haven home itself is a rectangle, non-descript concrete complex.  Besides the office, there are my quarters, the girls dorm, kitchen, main hall room, and the boys dorm.

Child Haven home

There I was, reporting for duty to assist with 41 children of varying ages and religions.  The intern handbook called this “self-directed” work, but I stood in horror realizing that an ink blot of mystery began to form on what this “work” truly is.  Would I get some direction at all?

My mind propelled backwards to my corporate days.  They were definitely stagnant, but at least I could map out the conditions with my eyes closed.

10 yards to the microwave.  Around noon, even earlier, I ate lunch at my desk because I woke at 6 am and consumed breakfast well before 8 am.  Hunger pains can hit mid-morning.

I could time with precision when the female contingent complained it was too cold or the crusty engineers griped about the scorching heat.  This phenomenon was always blamed on the faulty HVAC system installed when tower 3 was erected.

Everything felt clean, an orderly system even between the piles of projects on my desk.  I always kept my shoes on, so did everyone else.

My new cubicle

Prakesh’s voice brought me back.

“Auntie, please sit.”

I plopped down on a plastic lawn chair, its scratched, weathered body clearly battered by overzealous children.

Prakesh has the kind of face that invites friendship, open and smoothly lined, no harsh angles to deter or detract.

I tried to ignore my feet and concentrate as he relayed how many children they have, who is in English school, who isn’t.  Due to my accent and his, a few words were lost in translation, but we managed to understand one another.  It always amazes me how a few shared words can ignite an entire conversation, create a history with a person from a different culture.

He pointed to a picture of Gandhiji, revered father of the Child Haven concept, who’s face is printed on every rupee banknote, and forever symbolizes the guiding conscience of India.

Life size statue of Gandhiji in main entry hall

Close up of statue, notice child being "protected" by Gandhi

I noted two computers, a sputtering PC, and a newer Dell laptop that someone had donated.  Child Haven counts on donors to provide anything from clothes to equipment in order to keep the home thrumming with life and have a place for these kids to call home.

Kavita sat beside her husband, conveying a peaceful presence.  It was very clear why she manages the home.  She struck me as a quiet, but powerful force.  The perfect pseudo-mother for these kids.

They offered food and tea, never hesitating to display their generosity.  It was an unwavering hospitality that was alien, but welcome.

I sat on pins and needles, reticent to discover what was next.  My eyes strayed to legal sized ledger books on Prakesh’s desk.  It was obvious that main tasks are still done by hand writing everything, the computers were benign appendages to the whole operation.

No more office washrooms sanitized with industrial cleaner or Starbucks lattes.  It occurred to me that I am in over my head.

After tea and food, Prakesh and Kavita suggested a tour of the grounds.  I stepped out of the office, onto what can only be described as a concrete patio with an overhang.  A main artery where the kids play or pray.  Where Kavita will meet donors and visitors.

View from patio - garden to feed employees and children

I stood at the doorway paralyzed.  It dawned on me that the children and adults don’t wear shoes anywhere, not indoors or outdoors.  Kavita started walking towards the other end of the complex, springing cat like on her bare feet.  I almost rubbed my eyes to ensure she wasn’t strolling in a pair of New Balance sneakers.  I began to follow, but knew my virgin feet would crumble.  Possibly bleed in protest.  I was determined to ‘fit’ in, not be a boorish stereotype.  The type of traveler who makes everyone cringe or causes their friends to look upon the locals apologetically.

Kavita and dog on patio

She glanced sideways at me as we walked.

“It is okay to wear shoes here.”

“Really?”  My voice faltered with uncertainty.

Her lips upturned in a close mouthed smile.  Even though her smile was new, it was familiar and safe.

“It is okay.. ”

“Are you sure?  I don’t want to disrespect.”

Her eyes emitted reassurance.

“Noo.. it is okay.”

Relief flooded my face.

My practice is to go barefoot indoors.  Any resolve to go commando outdoors remains weak.

Later on, I noticed diligent sweeping and mopping of interior spaces.  The kids also sweep the patio area 2 or 3 times a day.

It was glaringly apparent, I have a lot to learn about cultural meshing.

For now, I have to be content with the gods smiling on me half the time.

Wooing or Expulsion, the India Version

My first impressions of Mumbai were the smells.

Pools of urine.  Dung.  Rotting fruit.  Enticing sandalwood clinging heavily to a sari as its owner swept past me, her slim hips swaying timidly against gold threading and pomegranate fabric.

Even dust had a scent.  Choking and harsh, clinging to the throat for hours on end.

Flora and fauna caught my eye next.  Most definitely tropical. Palm trees or vibrant flowers bursting with colors.  Everything that you do not find in cold, dead places up North.

The third was the dilapidated state of the buildings, or maybe it was just the disarray of them.

Some are built to code and perfection, beacons of Indian engineering, while others are crumbled, rebar exposed and accusatory.  You didn’t finish me.

What might be the most interesting is the staggering amount of rubble along the side of the roads.  Large chunks of concrete, dropped to the earth by Shiva’s wrath.  Lord Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, clearly leaves his mark.

Besides concrete, garbage, debris, objects you wouldn’t imagine belong there, somehow do.

Burning garbage may not be sanctioned by law or environmental groups, but it’s a practice still done on a regular basis.

And the driving.  I exaggerated in my last post about driving rules.  There are some.

The common way to drive is pass other vehicles, no matter what they are.  Large trucks, motorcycles, scooters, autorickshaw, economy cars… you name it.  The object is pass them by driving straight into oncoming traffic and leaning on the horn to “alert” someone you’re passing and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Then with cat-like reflexes you steer back into your own lane, narrowly missing a head on collision.

I have yet to witness an accident.

Finally, the men.  It was mid-morning on a Friday and a significant amount of men were present.  Constructing buildings, driving all the cars, rickshaws, taxis, walking or purchasing.  Eventually more women emergeed, but only smatterings.  With some gains that India has made in feminist circles, Mumbai feels very male dominated.  Can’t speak for the rest of India or even Mumbai, having only seen a fraction of its riches or truths.

It reminded me of a trip to Turkey.  A country for men and brotherhood.  Women were an afterthought in public life.  I stand out like an exclamation mark in a sea of periods.

It’s a land operating by their own rules, none that I can recognize or process yet.  Even within the chaos, more disorder can jolt the foreigner.   A pair of oxen chilling on an ordinary sidewalk, a sight unheard of where I hail from.

There is also an ease and openness that I’m still grasping.  People do what they do, and there lacks any outward judgement on it.

I am in Maharashtra state, a significant swath in India’s layered history, well known for some extraordinary cave temples and monasteries.  Maharashtra served as a trade route between north and south India.

The landscape is painted with mountain ranges and abandoned forts are located further inland.  Level ground and fresh water supplied by the might Western Ghats were sound spots to defend against large armies.

For the first few days, I felt my own emotional fort undergoing construction.  Here I am amid  the sounds, smells and visual explosions, wondering why I even came.

Seeking some order in the chaos?  Love or rejection might be the key.

3 months of volunteering won’t entail hopping jovially to tourist hot spots or backpacker beach parties, it will be work, a sort of meditation.

An early verdict is India is not so much enjoyed, but experienced.

I’m steadily hoping the ‘why’ becomes apparent.

Have you ever found yourself traveling somewhere, only to land and wonder what brought you in the first place?

Editor’s note: I will be updating with tips or stories on a weekly basis during my 3- month volunteer stay in Savarsai, India.  Thanks for reading!

By |November 22nd, 2010 |Categories: Mumbai |61 Comments

Mumbai Says Hi

My perilous journey from Mumbai to the site of my volunteer work, Savarsai. The rules of the road?  There are none.

And scenes of Mumbai.  Mind blowing to say the least.

A wonder I survived, but here I am with more tidbits to come!

By |November 16th, 2010 |Categories: Mumbai |19 Comments

Passports With Purpose & Win a Pair of Keen Shoes!

You might ask –  why care?

Why should it matter what happens to a group of people halfway across the world from you?  When it’s more vital to concentrate on your own family’s needs.  To keep afloat after the 2008 economic crash.

It matters because what happens in an unseen, far away land affects us all.

The world is no longer defined by the boundaries of your neighborhood.  Borders have tumbled down across continents.  When earthquakes level homes and kill hundreds in Haiti, that impacts us all.  When contaminated water floods the Danube and surrounding area, rendering farmland useless, it’s something we can’t ignore.

Those were my exact thoughts when I heard Passports With Purpose were seeking bloggers to fund raise this year.  Rather than use my passport for tourist pleasure, it occurred to me that it could be used for so much more.  That’s what triggered my escape from the corporate world.  My time and contribution felt cheap, utterly wasted.

Anyway, this post isn’t about my redemption, but someone else’s.

Passports With Purpose 2010

This year we are proud to lend our blog voice to helping LAFTI raise $50,000 to build a village for Dalit women and their families in Kathur, Tamil Nadu, India.

LAFTI (Land for Tillers Freedom) mission is to empower Dalits, a lower caste dubbed the “untouchables”.   This caste has suffered for several years under severe social, economic and physical abuse.  Dalit women are targeted viciously, as women’s rights begins to take shape in India.

LAFTI works with varying levels of government and financial institutions to purchase land for Dalit families.  They also assist with land distribution and cultivation, housing construction, adult training and youth housing and education.

Each house costs about $2,000 to build.

Need a Traghee?

How to Contribute

Starting November 15, 2010 the general public can contribute $10 increments by donating here.  Be assured, your donations go directly to Friends of LATFI, a 501(c)3 organization.  Donations close on December 13, 2010, so don’t hesitate and start donating now!

Why bother?  You could win a pair of Keen Shoes!

How about a Hoodoo Lace Up?

How the Draw Works

Starting today, the Passports With Purpose website will show a list of prizes available, with a link back to each travel blogger’s website.  For each $10 donation you make to LAFTI you will be entered to win a prize of your choice.

What that means is you can make multiple $10 donations towards your cherished prize or make one $10 donation for a prize.  Another strategy is putting $10 or more on several prizes that whet the appetite.

If you prefer to make a direct donation to LATFI and forgo a prize (why you would is beyond me), click here: donate without choosing a prize.

Venice - perfect for any hard core traveler

The Giveaway – Keen Shoes!!!

KEEN Inc., manufacturer of hybrid footwear, socks and bags, is an outdoor brand that delivers innovative hybrid products, enabling outdoor enthusiasts to live an active lifestyle. Founded in 2003, KEEN was first recognized for its Newport sandal, which featured patented toe protection technology.

The company strives to demonstrate integrity and leadership, especially on social and environmental commitments, while promoting a vibrant, inclusive community that attracts all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. Through its giving program Hybrid.Care, KEEN supports a variety of social and environmental organizations around the globe.

Based in Portland, Oregon, KEEN products are available in more than 5,000 retail locations in more than 50 countries – including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Central America, South America and Europe.

The lucky winner of this prize will be given a coupon code and can choose any pair of shoes from Keen’s catalogue!!  Visit www.keenfootwear.com for more details.

Maybe you’re traveling to a hot and humid country next year, which involves some sturdy sandals.  Or you are finally planning that dream trip to climb Mount Everest, a pair of winter hikers would come in handy.  Whatever your travel needs entail, this prize is a blank slate.

Overall value of the prize is $110 to $220.

I’m the proud owner of a pair of Keen Newports and am wearing them right now in India.  They are robust, protect my feet, and are made of AEGIS Microbe Shield lining, to help prevent odor, staining or deterioration.  I adore them.  And for a woman with flat, flat feet they are immensely comfortable!

Whatever your needs, my personal endorsement of Keen is solid.  They work for the curious, adventure seeker.

Final Words

My oddessy with India is a personal quagmire.  I’ve been in India 3 days now, volunteering with an independent organization.  It’s testing my limits, patience, and what we define as “important” work.

Whatever my political or social beliefs, I’m still readjusting them.  I try to view the kids I work with as human beings, the Dalit caste is no different.  And shouldn’t all human beings be given the chance at a fresh start?

Prize is sponsored by www.keencanada.ca

TBEX – Romantic Backdrops and the Cirkus

Networking.

Every industry does it.

Hobnobbing was far from my mind when brisk cold seeped through my sweater.  Central Station in Copenhagen deposited me in its arteries at 9 am.  A Wednesday — hump day — as North Americans fondly refer to it.  There were far from humps here though.

First off, the Copenhagen airport dazzled me.  Forget about those Ikea decorating jokes.  How a shabby student injects his entire space with Scandinavian child’s glitter.  Sleek, geometric lines and rich colors instilled comfort.  Like a character in a Susanne Bier comedy.  The airport lounge didn’t scorch the aesthetic eye.

Back to Central Station.  A literal hub of Danish or international travelers.  I felt slotted into a turn of the century film where the only means of transport is the train.  Anything else is a mad inventor haunted by visions of horseless carriages.  There were suitcases or packs attached to old, young, the cool.  There were restaurants, even the tried and true MacDonald’s.  McD’s seems to be the beacon for foreigners.  Meet here.  You can’t miss the red and yellow.

Copenhagen is ridiculously walkable and apparently designed more for bicycles than cars.  The city is 34.1 square miles.  There are wide dedicated bike lanes and has been for years, while Canada — particularly Vancouver — are starting that experiment now.  What caught my eye were the amount of bikes parked.

It was a treasure to see instead of football field sized parking lots and 10 SUV’s neatly lined and primed for gas guzzling.  An insider told me if you are pressed for time nip a “loaner” bike, one that’s not chained and ride it to your intended destination, then simply park it among the droves of bike racks dispersed throughout the city.  My attempts one night to “nip”after taking a wrong turn proved comedy gold.  All of them reached me at waist level.  Smallness is such a burden.

My 4 am wake up call was beginning to wear on me, time to locate Danhostel.  Temporarily without an iPhone, I had to rely on a map taken from the airport.  Bad.  I’m happy to announce my skills at map reading still reek of spoiled meat.

Getting lost can be a luxury, inevitably you discover.  I asked a nice receptionist at a Danish office tower where to find said hostel.  Did you know some office buildings are equipped with chic mini-cafeterias on the main floor?  I sure didn’t.

Despite my complaining feet and monster pack (now weighing 36 lbs!), Copenhagen is dripping with regal architecture.  Expansive, inconceivable almost. The kind of spaces that cause you to pinch yourself.  I. Am. Here.

I had signed up for a whirling dervish of a weekend.  Copenhagen was the ripe setting for TBEX.

What is TBEX?

Travel Blog Exchange is a way to translate online relationships into the real world. Little did I know as I finally found Danhostel by the canal what discovery truly meant.

That meeting fellow travelers would prove fun and pound my liver.

That the speakers and workshops would have a profound affect on me.  All impacting, forcing me to question what blogging really means to me.  How far I have to go as a writer.

That I would win a dinner to Cirkus, a breathtaking stucture conceived of in 1886 – a site for a real circus centuries ago.  The very setting of the conference during the day,while at night it morphed into a hotbed of song, cabaret, dance and vaudeville.

That I would ask a perfect stranger to attend the dinner with me.  We were plied with free wine and lobster bisque.

That we would share a brief kiss on J-Day, the very night Christmas beer was released.  My red lipstick staining his pale lips.

That I would fall for Copenhagen, as the beginnings of winter fell over the city like a blanket plunged in cold water, testing my temperature tolerance.

Tivoli.

Fristaden Christiania, the famous Freetown, a former naval base that was claimed by hippies in the 1970’s.  Now this thriving neighborhood has about 650 residents – give or take.  Official squatters of Scandinavia.

City Hall at night.

I embraced my ignorance of all this.  Of change.  New discoveries.  Old doubts.  All I could concentrate on was a girl with thick dreads and a pierced nose telling me that check-in is at 2 pm, and would I like to put my pack into the luggage room until then?

I breathed out a “yes”.

By |November 11th, 2010 |Categories: Copenhagen |25 Comments

Internet Killed the Travel Star

Today’s guest post is by Shawn Stafford of rerunaround.  Shawn fondly remembers the unblemished, frontier days of exploration — before Internet or Facebook existed.  He challenges us to ask if ‘journey’ in the post-technology world is only confirmation or actual discovery.

looking at the map

You kids listen up while I ramble on about what it was like traveling back in the olden timey days. Speaking from personal experience, there is a world of difference between “pre” and “post” Internet travel.  You know, night and day, cats and dogs, all that sort of thing.  Technology has performed a nearly complete overhaul on our lives. I’m not talking about sex with robots or anything like that.  I’m referring more to the ocean of information and instant communication that we’re all doggy paddling in.  The classic travel experience we romanticize in our imaginations doesn’t exist like that anymore.  We all have visions of unraveling the mysteries of exotic, distant lands while somehow simultaneously unraveling ourselves.  Unfortunately, you’re just going to have to unravel yourself in the privacy of your own bathroom, because the rest has already been done for you.These days we travel to confirm what we already know.  Not to genuinely discover the unknown. By the time we arrive in a new place we’ve already seen so many pictures online, or read so many descriptions, that all we’re doing is confirming it all.  Checking it off a list with a few pictures, a healthy nod, and maybe a few minutes of whimsical self reflection.

Gone are the days where you could walk down the streets of a foreign city, turn a corner, and suddenly be genuinely amazed to see a fantastic plaza or sculpture.  One you never knew existed.  You know where they all are now, that guide you googled listed out for you all six of the must see spots.In the early 90s I traveled a fair bit to countries far away from home, and it was an entirely different experience from traveling today.  I can remember actually using a globe in a public library to see what countries surrounded India.  Or another time, when a friend and I decided to get from where we were (Alaska), to somewhere warmer and cheaper — Which a friend of a friend assured us was probably below Mexico — we had next to nothing telling us what to do. Literally, we had a little bit of cash in our pocket, a small backpack each, and one of those folding road maps of North America.  The damn map didn’t consider Mexico part of North America though, so before long we were just blindly walking, hitchhiking, and taking cheap buses in a generally southerly direction.  I was quite pleased with myself that I had gone to school on that one fateful day in the fifth grade where we had to colour the countries of the world in on a map.  My memory from that map was pretty much the best info we had. It helped too that I’m seriously good at colouring.

Beyond the logistics of traveling without infinite information, I found the biggest difference and loss to be the detachment.  When that person came up with the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” they didn’t mean being away from Facebook all afternoon.  Pre-Internet travel meant going weeks, or months, with no communication with any of the people in your life.  Sure, if you went someplace nice you could make collect phone calls.  The really distant, unique, and challenging places left you truly isolated though.  Then it really was about discovery and adventure.  Can you really say that you’re completely in a different place if you check in on your friend’s Facebook status before going to bed?  If you post pictures of your lunch on Twitter?  You’re just physically in a different location on the planet, but you’re still connected.  How can you genuinely understand what parts of yourself are made up by the people you care about if you can’t ever be completely isolated from them?  To this day, nearly twenty years later, I still have gaps in my life from when I was isolated on some foreign trip or another.  Pop culture references, moments in friend’s lives, even just general news items from that time don’t exist for me.  Instead I have a completely different world of memories and events from those times.

Several times I’ve been tempted to try and travel nowadays with no connections.  Bring no gadgets with me, and not use any Internet or the such while gone.  It’s so hard to do now.  For all the value I think there is in doing a trip the tough way, it sure is nice to get an email from a good friend while you sit in a cold tent in the middle of nowhere.  I tell ya though, there’s really something great about being on your own and figuring it all out for yourself.  Sure you’ll have rainy afternoons where the loneliness will be absolutely crushing and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You’ll also have brilliant moments of independence and adventure where your only complaint will be having no one to tell about it.  You’ll be completely untangled from everyone else and left with just yourself.  So if you have the means to travel completely unplugged, I definitely recommend giving it a try.

What do you think?  Have you unplugged and why?  Is there a benefit to doing this?

About the Author

Shawn Stafford is an attractive crime fighter, and part-time nomadic freelance writer, whose other articles can be found on his subtly classy yet mediocre website rerunaround.  Or tap me on the shoulder at Twitter: @shawnosaurus.