Colors of the World: 10 Minutes with Gypsies

Have you ever had those moments when you finally let go and magic happens?

I was a clenched anus of blockage.  For two months and 28 days, my life was filled with adjustments upon adjustments.

With four days to go on volunteering, that’s when I decided to climb a mountain.

Er.. not exactly a mountain, I suppose.   The landscape surrounding the volunteer home consisted of a busy highway, beyond that, endless hills.  High enough that you can’t see past them.  Dotted with tangled bush or flattened by fire to scare away snakes or ready the ground for planting.

Tucked into those hills, I knew there was a pristine lake.  Beyond that, my imagination took over.

That day I dropped the primary kids off at school and decided to cut through a field in front of the village.

long shot of camp

I came upon dwellings that reminded me of igloos, except these were desert igloos.  Not a chip of ice was used in their construction.

There had to be 15 or 20 tents.

I thought of long, black worms when I gazed at them.  Corrugated metal acted as walls and insulation.  Shiny garbage bags must have been rain protection, and sawed off branches held everything in place.

I arrived at a clearing.  At my feet, lay the leavings of a fire, rocks composed in circles smeared with dark ash.

A few steps further, there they were.  A group of women huddled before me, staring in fascination.  They seemed very young, my guess, ages 17 to 21.  Children of varying ages surrounded them, dressed in mismatched clothes, or barely anything at all.  Their tiny faces were smeared with dirt and grime.  It was clear the older ones were not enrolled in school, nor expected to attend.

I say it was about the mountain, but the truth is I had seen them before, but lacked the guts to approach them.  This time I did.

Who were they?  Why were they living off the side of a highway?  I was about to find out.

boy in front of dwelling

A young woman with two babies was bolder than the rest, gesturing for me to come closer.  Her children looked fairly close in age.  The newborn, which I determined was two months old, was wrapped in a coarse potato sack, quite the opposite of a soft baby blanket.  Its eyes had a milky sheen, the stage when newborns are distinguishing shapes and color.

It was the middle of the day and they all wore nightgowns.  There lacked an urgency to be dressed in the daily sari.

She offered me a plastic bowl to sit on.  One that was once yellow, but now so destroyed it had turned charcoal.  It would be easy to say fire or dirt was the cause, but in truth, I didn’t want to know.

I sat down on the bowl and tried to communicate.

“Hindi or Marahti?”

“Marathi!  Egh?”

“Ninnn, tora tora Marathi,” I said in Marindu, my butchering and pasting of Hindu and Marathi together.

The woman with the young babies seemed to understand a few English words and attempted to translate.

Through stilted language, they figured I wasn’t married and some finger pointing in tandem with use of the word “hostel” conveyed how a foreigner materialized from nowhere.

Pointing east, then at myself. “Me!  Hostel. Child Haven.”

To my disbelief, one of them pulled out a mobile and took my picture with it.  I just met a group of technomads.

I could see inside the tents, which in my world is sufficient for weekend camping, not a permanent living space.

Rows of plain boxes with a simple latch were lined up against the “walls” of each tent, enough to hold their possessions.

There was no refrigerator, toilet or living room.  They were open to the elements.

It would be easy to categorize them as destitute, but the older kids were sucking on orange freezies.  The women wore gold or silver jewelry, either adorning an earlobe or ankle.

They used every speck of outdoor space by hanging laundry on tree branches, using a small patch of land for a garden.  It was obvious they created a home of sorts.

second group shot

Yet, by the very impermanent nature of their community, I knew they could pack up and leave.

Just like me.

My translator said she was from Karnataka, came all the way to Maharashtra to marry.

There were no men present.  I guessed they were out working.  I know construction workers lead semi-nomadic lives, taking their families with them.  I saw tools near a tent, bits of manipulated wood.  Cabinet makers?

She flipped on music from the mobile, baffling me again.

They barely have anything, yet how do they have this?

We bridged gaps of language and culture when I made her baby laugh by saying the Marathi word for dance.

“Natcha!  Natcha!”  Grabbing her developing fingers, pumping her arm to the Marathi techno warbling from the mobile.

The rest of the kids giggled, which opened the door to the best game ever.  Peek-a-boo.  That sent the kids running away, but coming back for more.

My shirt hiked up by accident, flashing my belly button.  One of the women grabbed the hem, pulling it up to reveal a naval piercing.  Gasps all around.  For the next two minutes, we compared navels.  It was confirmed; mine was the only one with a bauble.  We showed each other our ankle bracelets and ear piercings.  Forget words, we connected on what made us feel pretty, unique.  I saw the similarities, not the differences.

We settled into a comfortable silence.  I knew it was time to leave.

I bid them goodbye, began walking up a snaking hill towards the lake.

My thoughts couldn’t let go of their living conditions, the lack of possessions I saw.  Even the idiosyncratic mobile.

group shot

Then I realized how my friends must see me.  With no roof over my head or job to wake up for.

Could be they pity me.  Think I’m insane.  Wonder how the hell I lug around a laptop with nothing else to my name.

Even though I set out to climb a mountain, it seemed I ended up on a circular path and met myself again.

I felt an eerie connection to this group of gypsies.  I wanted to believe it was a conscious choice, maybe believing that made me feel assured of my own.

Yes!  We are everywhere.  I felt unhinged.  Unclenched.  As I navigated the bumpy terrain, it felt good to be homeless and nameless.

It felt good to be me.

What is Colors of the World? When I set out on this adventure, one of my goals was to interact with locals, not just scratch the surface.  Join me on these captured moments of cultural interactions.  You might find insight.  You could discover understanding.  Or realize that whittling an hour away with a local teaches you more about a country than any guidebook could.

By |April 6th, 2011 |Categories: Culture, Savarsai |37 Comments

Colors of the World: Kavita Patil

“Since 2001.”

A serene smile lit her face as she said it.

“You have been manager of Child Haven since then?”

That smile again.  “Yes, yes.  Only me and 2 girls.  When Prakash and I marry 10 children here.  They cried at marriage time, asking where I go.  We stay in village 1 night.”

“You marred late?”

She laughed gently, how I imagine Buddha might respond to a cosmic joke.

“My father was teacher, then principal.  I tell him, want to work, get feet on ground before I marry.  He accept my decision.”

“That is unusual, isn’t it?”

Doling out soy milk to the kids

“Not always usual, my father teacher, he say school first.  Other village women marry, no work or school.”

“And how did you meet Prakash?”

She clutched at the gathers of her sari, laughing deeper, harder.

“Everyone say we are love marriage, but arrange marriage through friends.  First year, come Priya, 5 years later, come Supriya.”

It was my turn to laugh.  Even I assumed it was a love match, they were opposites who complemented each other very well.

“Auntie, time for washing [clothes], more chapatti?”

“No, no.. Oh Kavita, you work hard.  Wake up 6 am, get Priya ready for school, helping other children, washing, cooking, you are so busy!  Bedtime not until 10:30, 11:00!”

This time she grinned, one soaked in confidence, a sense of knowing where she belonged.

“Yes, but I like it.”

What is Colors of the World?  When I set out on this adventure, one of my goals was to interact with locals, not just scratch the surface.  Join me on these captured moments of cultural interactions.  You might find insight.  You could discover understanding.  Or realize that whittling an hour away with a local teaches you more about a country than any guidebook could.

By |March 9th, 2011 |Categories: Culture, Savarsai |6 Comments

Puri, Puri in My Mouth

Bread is essential to daily meals in India.  I’ve eaten them all: chapatti, roti and naan.

But, how about puri?  Not a standard dinner item, I’ve experienced it’s deliciousness at weddings, engagement parties or sometimes breakfast.  Mostly though, it’s served with pride at ceremonial events.

Puri is a round, flat bread that puffs when cooked.  I was first exposed to it at the volunteer home, then got hooked.  It’s by far my favorite.  Who wouldn’t adore deep fried bread?  And if you don’t, you’re just wrong.  All wrong.

The best method to enjoying puri is with a korma, dal or potato masala.  Either way it goes well with any meal.

Rockin’ Puri Recipe

1 cup of either atta (whole-wheat flour), maida (refined wheat flour) or Sooji (coarse wheat flour)
1/4 tsp. of salt (or to taste)
1/2 of water (judge this, you might need less or more, depends on the flour)
Ghee (butter) for flavor.
Vegetable oil for frying.

  • Combine flour and salt in a bowl.
  • Slowly add water to the flour and salt mixture.  Keep adding water until it forms into a pliable dough.  You don’t want the dough to be too dry or too wet.  A happy medium.
  • While adding water toss in a little vegetable oil or melted ghee with the dough.
  • Knead the dough until smooth.  Make sure it’s not sticky.  If so, add some flour.
  • Form the dough into 6 inch balls.
  • Use a rolling pin to roll each ball into a thin-medium thickness.  Make sure it’s not too thin or the bread will end up crispy.  You don’t want that!
  • Heat enough vegetable oil in a deep pan to cover the puri.
  • Test the oil by adding some dough.  If it puffs up and doesn’t soak oil, the oil is heated properly.
  • Add your first rolled out puri.  As it rises to the surface, pour oil over it.
  • It should puff up and fully rise to the surface.  Glorious!
  • Use tongs to flip it around and cook the other side until golden brown.
  • Place the puri on a paper towel to soak up residual oil.
  • Repeat until all the puri is cooked.

Servings: 6 to 8 puris.

Tip:  Puri is killer with chutney.  Try it!

Knowledge tip:  I’ve also seen the bread called poori.

By |March 6th, 2011 |Categories: Savarsai |9 Comments

A Love Affair Ends

Dear Volunteering,

Alas, all things have a natural end.  I’m sorry it had to come to this, but our time is over.

It’s a myth that love affairs are riddled with happiness.

Sometimes, you nearly made me cry.

On the good days, you had me grinning ear to ear.

Despite our rocky time together, I’ll always remember the endless sunny days, our walks to school together, dancing to Marathi disco and eating Cadbury chocolate until our fingers got sticky.

I’ll think fondly of our lively dinners and visits to all the neighboring villages.

Most of all, I’ll miss our children.  Make sure Sanghvi continues her studies.  She’s so bright.  And don’t let little Rohan get bullied anymore.  Watch Suresh mature, I’m excited to see what kind of man he grows into.

As I lounge in Goa sipping frothy cocktails and admiring a pool boy’s behind, your memory will fade, but not your impact.

You forced me to discover reserves of patience I once thought was a mirage.  You taught me to accept, even when I didn’t want to.  How holding a child’s hand means more than offering an extravagant gift.

Thanks for these 3 months, it lasted longer than any of my relationships, really.

I’ll leave you with some pictorial tokens of my affection.  Please don’t cry, you’ll only make it worse.

XO

Jeannie

What I Do All Day

When you’re volunteering overseas it’s the opposite of pleasure travel.  I eat the food given to me, sit on freezing concrete and pace my time according to a schedule.

Since I’m working at a home for children, everything centers around them.

Wake up call is 5:30 or 6:00 am

Yeah, fantastically early.  Even in my previous life I never woke at 5:30 except for a bathroom break or nightmare jolt.  Prakash makes the kids do calisthenics to get the blood going before school.  It’s actually fairly refreshing.

After we’ve been sweating to the oldies, they get their ration of toothpaste.

Prayer

7:30 am is morning prayer and follows the essential Gandhi philosophy:

Be compassionate to all living beings

Live a simple life

Treat all people equally

Be kind to each other

Respect others rights to be different

Be thoughtful

Help others

Do your best in everything that you do

Be happy

My favorite part is when they all sing:

“Live a life of true… and happiness you will find… Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhiji, Gandhijiiiii!!!”

School Drop Off

After a breakie of chapatti and lentils, I usually take the Marathi primary kids to school at 10ish.  It’s a close 10 minute jaunt to the Savarsai village.

I’m constantly amazed how the kids can walk on sharp rocks and uneven paved roads with their tiny bare feet!

Kitchen Duty

Once in a while I’ll help out in the kitchen chopping vegetables or deep frying a flat bread called poori.

English and Homework

Sometimes you have to be proactive at volunteering, so I invented a spelling game for the kids.  I wrote out basic English words on bits of paper and scrambled the order in a hat.  Each child picks a word, has to pronounce the word outloud and spell it on a slate.  I’m a popular Auntie, well known for handing out prizes.  The ones that generate buzz are pencils and erasers. I’ll even give them paper to draw after a few games are played.

I’ve tutored some kids learning English, which is odd since I’m the wobbly one on the subject.  I’ve turned out to be a patient and decent teacher.  At least that’s what kids tell me.

Yoga

After the kids return from school, night prayer is at 6 pm and then we do yoga.  I contort along with them, but yoga on concrete is rough compared to the oak floors of Vancouver.

Songs and Story Time

I’ve been known to belt a tune without karaoke and the fanning fires of alcohol, so I put my tone deafness to good use.  I’ve taught them Ring Around the Rosie, Frère Jacques, among others.  The kids also love a good yarn.  Since my 3 months is nearly over, I’ve run out of fairy tales, resorting to making up my own.  I usually include animals, some conflict and resolution, and a moral lesson at the end like, don’t be greedy, be thankful for the food on your plate, or always be generous with your friends.

By 10 pm the kids are knackered, and so am I.  It’s off to bed until we wake to do it all over again!

If you included volunteering in your travels, what were some of your duties?

Coconut Chutney – Indian Holy Grail

It’s no secret that I am violently in love with coconut, so when my volunteer host, Kavita presented me with homemade chutney at dinner one evening, I nearly fainted with joy.  Is coconut better than sex?  A close second.

Chutneys are used as an accompaniment to the main meal.  They can be wet or dry, and are usually a grainy texture.

I managed to extract the recipe from Kavita.  You may not be physically present in India, but try this recipe to taste an authentic chutney.  It’s sooo damn good!

Hardcore Coconut Chutney

1 small red onion
1/4 cup of fresh coconut (dried coconut is an acceptable alternative)
1 tomato or tomato paste
Lots and lots of garlic (3 or 4)
1 green or red chilli (your preference)
2 tablespoons of peanut oil (or vegetable oil of your choice)

  • Dice the onion, tomato, garlic and chili.  Put aside.
  • If using fresh coconut, shred into small pieces.
  • Combine all the ingredients except the oil.  Blend together with a mortar and pestle or a food processor.
  • Pour oil into a pan, fry the chutney on medium high until heated through.

Combine it with a vegetable, basmati rice or Dal.  Dip your chapati in the chutney, it’s yummy!

* I highly recommend adding extra coconut, it’s a nice contrast to the chilli.

By |February 7th, 2011 |Categories: Savarsai |20 Comments