Thursday, May 31, 2012

We were there…

Sometimes, you’re in the right place at the right time. Once in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that place was Hyderabad, India, for the organization of the first Stake in the country of India. It was monumental. We had heard speculative rumors about the formation of a new stake just a couple weeks before we got on the plane. Sure enough, the first thing we did when we got off the plane was volunteer to help the joint West Mardepally branch choir. Little did we know that we’d end up volunteering for much more than that…

The energy and excitement of the members was like an electrical current. The members were looking forward to Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy, and Elder Perkins of the Seventy. All three came with their wives, as well as President Funk and his wife of the India Bangalore Mission (he happens to also be a close friend of my Mission President!! We didn’t think we’d get the chance to see them here!).

The same weekend there was an awesome India-wide YSA conference, with young adults coming in from Sri Lanka and Nepal as well. I managed to see (Sister) Maggie George from my mission there sitting just a couple rows in front of us (we went as volunteers to help with the conference). She almost jumped out of her skin when I tapped on her shoulder and said, "Hi Sister George!"

Our choir experience was quite the… experience. I attended because Katrina was attending. Not because I am blessed with profound singing abilities. I just wanted to pitch in if I could. Turns out I was one of the MVPs of the men’s section – they all tried to follow my pitch and pace and everything. Super stressful for me. Katrina of course became the star (along with Diondra, another volunteer from our team helping the altos). With a lot of effort from Brook Dorff, our country director, on the piano, Katrina and Diondra, and our wonderful chorister Sister Gutti, and of course a great deal of help from on High, the choir ended up sounding just wonderful.

Most beautiful, of course, was the significance of what happened for the Indians themselves. I am so impressed with the members, their strength and maturity in the gospel. The most I knew of the saints in India was a brief quote from President Hinckley years back about the Church having a handful of members amongst the “millions of India.” I pictured a young church, relying a lot on missionaries from out of the country. What a blessing to have my ignorance of India’s growth shattered the very first week here. We were greeted with a bustling branch full of loving and bright members and wonderful, spiritual meetings each Sunday.

Now that branch is a ward! The Stake Conference saw to that. Elder Oaks’ and the other Brethren’s instruction were phenomenal. They spoke of maturing in the gospel individually, just as the Church had institutionally matured in India. Elder Oaks bore powerful witness of the gift of forgiveness, the love of God, and of the Savior. A new Stake President was called – a former branch President who has proven to be quite the Indian saint. The first Patriarch in India was called. Twenty-two men were advanced to the office of High Priest.

On another side of things, Katrina and I were asked to prepare lunch for Elder Oaks and his companion brethren on Saturday. On one hand, I felt very blessed to have the opportunity, like how the wonderful Polynesians felt every time they had the chance to serve me as a missionary.  I also felt super stressed about the whole idea. The Brethren requested relatively American-style foods, which made finding the ingredients difficult, and we don’t have the best cooking facilities around here either. But we got it all together and put a good meal on the table for them. At least, that’s what they said! Elder Oaks also teased me (indirectly, and very kindly) about being a sociology major. I tried to take it gracefully. J To say the least, it was a beautiful weekend.

Katrina also borrowed a saree from Modesta’s (our country director) sister. She looked BEAUTIFUL. And I can say that because she doesn’t scan my blog posts before I put them online... Adorable. See for yourself.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Snaps of a Lambala village

I’m realizing it’s difficult for me to blog in words about this trip just yet. It’s too much to put into words, I have to think about it a little while. But what I can and do want to share are the photos – or “snaps” as they call them here – of the people and the places. It’s kind of unreal. And even though I don’t know the people intimately, they are so warm and inviting. I am so intrigued by their beauty and authenticity. And I'm still trying to understand so many things about them.

Here are a few pictures that we took while visiting an organization called CARPED, which works on a variety of projects, some of which help the Lambala tribal people (these are not the tribes we talked about visiting earlier, but still very cool).  They have had a problem here where con doctors have convinced over 600 women to get hysterectomies unnecessarily by saying it was the cause of their various stomach cramps. It’s so tragic. This not only costs them so much money, but for many it debilitates them. The surgery is already a complicated one, and it is performed in totally unfit conditions, so many times women cannot function properly afterwards, and of course they cannot have children. This prevents women from doing their daily work, and often creates a situation where husbands feel their wives are a burden and sometimes leave them.

The woman above was one such woman that had an unnecessary hysterectomy. Luckily, she seems to be doing okay. She told us she wants to come to America. She was so gracious. And her special dress was so interesting and beautiful.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera to this village, so these are just taken on our point-and-shoot and not as good of quality, but I am still in love with them. These people!

Some pictures of the cultural lunch we had. Totally ate with our fingers off of a leaf plate. We love it.

(oh, and snaps is what they call taking photos here - "no snaps please," for example)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Suffer the children to come…

Hyderabad, and India in general, has a multitude of challenges. That’s why we’re here. We’ve seen many, just like we’ve seen many beautiful and inspiring places and people. One particular challenge that reaches out and pulls at our heart strings, as you’d expect, has to do with the children. The NGOs here call it child labor.

We’ve seen children with numbers tattooed on their forearms. It was a little shocking. Thankfully, not every child has such marks – at least child labor here is not an institutionalized and rationalized crime like what occurred in Europe during World War II. Child labor here most frequently is a family challenge where parents cannot afford to meet their family needs and so they either hire out their children or even sell them out-right. Once a child is working, families become dependent on that additional income. It becomes difficult to break away from the practice. Other child labor happens when children cannot make it to school (especially in rural India), drop out, and begin working. It is tragic, for they are truly adorable. Check out this cute little guy!

Children so "employed" do all sorts of things – work in the fields, as aids in any profession imaginable from mechanics to carpentry, as house-helps or in domestic labor, in hotels, in factories… We met or heard of kids from each of these. This boy told his story - he helped fix scooters for a couple years before finding himself at this bridge camp we were visiting.

But the great news is these children were smiling and happy. We visited what are called “bridge camps” from a great organization called the MV Foundation. They advocate for children’s rights, work with rural villages where child labor is an endemic problem, train and help parents come to realize that they can find other income sources, and show the benefits of kids having a full education.

For those kids MV helps to rescue, they have built residential bridge schools to help them catch up to the level of learning they should be at given their current age. The boys and girls at these camps are happy, and determined. Many want to go on and become doctors, teachers, engineers. They love to show their talents and what they’re learning too. Many sang for us, told their stories, and even played volleyball with us. The girls here were showing their English skills, and the boys below performed a moving dance piece for us.

You can also watch a video our country director recorded of the girls singing a song to our team. It's very moving - especially after it was translated for us. The girls sing about claiming their rights as the future of India. It was beautiful. 

Katrina will be working with MV Foundation this summer. They are looking for people with skills like photography and videography so that the stories of these children can be documented and shared with other organizations who are combatting child labor. MV has a network with such NGOs in fifteen different countries. We’re supper excited that Katrina will get to work with the kids so closely, recording their stories and taking photos… They really are precious and beautiful. Here's Katrina playing with some of the girls outside.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

There and back again, an Indian’s tale, III

The University of Hyderabad is a world outside of this one. It was quite, beautiful, and clean. And Dr. Kumar was just great. I first met one of his PhD students, Roja, who talked with me for a good twenty minutes about research, family, the States, Hyderabad, and everything else. She was great. Then Dileep Kumar came in and we had a number of good laughs. He’s set up to have one of his students accompany me on my research to add a bit of translation help when needed, but mostly just a local face to give credibility to the foreigner asking questions. It should be great.

To keep with the transportation theme, though, you should know that I had my first scooter and motorcycle rides at the university today too. My thesis advisor does research on how motorcycles are transforming the developing world, and anyone who’s been here can say that’s true. Every square inch of open space between the bustling buses and rickshaws are filled with motorcycles. Some carry one or two, while others carry three, four, five, or six people, or maybe just one person and their one-year-old buffalo, or about 500 pounds of some fresh produce off to the market. This photo is just from google, but we'll have to put some up some of our own if we can whip out our cameras in time. This is no strange sight anymore...

So motorcycles here are minivans, trucks, and sedans, all in one. What’s most amazing is how they weave in and out of everything, and how the people hardly look phased at all sitting on the back four inches of the seat that’s left to them. Most don’t even hold on, and women usually sit side saddle on the back. I’m always amazed. You can see how motorcycles just fill the gaps in this photo:

Well, on the way to lunch the professor gave me a ride on the back of his scooter. I was a little timid, but luckily it was all in the U of Hyd campus and so nothing too scary. Good thing too, because this was the prep I needed to be ready for my ride back to the train station when our meetings were over. I said I’d catch another rick back to the station, but good professor Kumar would have nothing with the idea. He had a student drive me on his motorcycle. That was great. I really enjoyed it, but still question how a family of four (or seven) make it work.

There and back again, an Indian’s tale, II

After the wicked rickshaw ride, I got off at the Secunderabad train station. It was a little overwhelming, and I at first second-guessed whether or not I should take the train. It’s apparently cheaper (and I would find this in fact is true) than a rickshaw, and I was going all the way across the city, so it seemed monetarily the better choice. But I don’t read or speak Telugu, and I hardly understand English. What if I accidently got on a train to Delhi? Cool for me, but Katrina would have killed me…

I forged ahead, got a ticket (for four rupees… essentially eight cents) and headed to the trains. There were about ten platforms and four parked trains already there, and the ticket didn’t say anything helpful. Nothing about which platform, which train number, nothing. So I started awkwardly (very awkwardly) asking every Indian around which was the right train for “Lingerpally.” I was told three different trains on three different platforms. I went up the stairs, across the sky bridge, and back down again twice before finding out what I should be asking is for the “local train.” Platform 7-A. The route you can see below - from Secunderabad to Lingerpally.

Nothing in India is on time, and when it is, it’s probably because the original time has been postponed a couple times. The trains follow suit. I waited an extra 20 minutes for the train to show up, and when it did, it was a 20 minute wait on the train for it to start. I was seriously thinking this was the wrong way to go, but couldn’t bring myself to leave because I knew as soon as I stepped off it would toot the horn and drive off. I found out later that the train was having a couple difficulties and it usually isn’t that long. But, without further ado, it started away.

What an adventure! The train ride was probably my favorite part of my experience here so far. I got to scan the entire city, seeing the abject poverty of makeshift shanties and tarp houses juxtaposed with first class, hi-tech sky scrapers. Cows, pigs, dogs, and other varmints lived along the train tracks, we crossed a river, numerous stagnant and smelly water ponds, and over a lot of roads where I could watch the chaos of the traffic below me. It was peaceful, cleaner air, and the breeze coming in the open doors was refreshing against the omni-present, smothering heat. I also loved watching the local Indians. Kids always want a wink or a wave from the white guy on board, and may of the men try to be helpful, offering me seats and advice. I preferred to stand by the open door though so I could poke my head out and watch the city. This of course made for a couple close calls with oncoming trains that almost decapitated me. But not much detail needed here. Katrina will probably be reading this…

Unfortunately, the train was very efficient, and arrived at the stop across the city in just a short time compared to how long it takes to maneuver the roads. I wished it could have lasted longer. True, sometimes one could hear the rails creaking or feel the entire train-car shaking, and wonder if it was smart to have ever stepped on board, but apparently it’s ok. There was an article in the paper this morning about 26 who just died in a train crash, but I suffered no such fate.

At the train station it was easy enough to catch a rickshaw to the University to finish the first leg of the journey. He was a great guy, this new driver. He asked about my religion and we had a good (albeit broken) conversation about how God created love, not religions. He’s apparently a Christian, and then five minutes later, assured me he was also Hindu. Made me smile. He gave me his phone number and asked that I come visit him and his two kids and wife. I just might.

There and back again, an Indian’s tale

Today Kyle took a train ride across the entire city of Hyderabad. He was off to meet a professor named Dileep Kumar at the University of Hyderabad. And it was quite the journey.

Usually we ride rickshaws everywhere, and that’s an experience all in itself. That’s also how the day began. Let us give you a lesson, should you ever find yourself in Hyderabad. You wave one of our friendly-looking (sometimes pimped-out), three-wheeling, bus dodging rickshaw friends down (or they kind of creepily saddle over to the side of the road and peek out at you hoping you want a ride), and then try to communicate where you’re going. Today it was, “Secunderabad train station?” A genuine head bobble responds, meaning this rick driver registered my thick American accent. Then the bargaining process starts. “How much?” “50 rupee.” If it’s ridiculous (which this kind of was), you can kind of laugh or just start walking off to see how willing the driver is to lower his quote. Or you can just jump to a lower price. “No. Twenty!” Then it’s in his court. He can drive off in a huph, or… “Fourty!” “Thirty!” Another head bobble, and the journey’s started!

Indian roads are fantastic. You can get a good idea of what that means with the following quote from the US embassy about them…

Travel by road is dangerous... Buses, patronized by hundreds of millions of Indians, are convenient... However, they are usually driven fast, recklessly, and without consideration for official rules of the road. Accidents are quite common. Trains are somewhat safer than buses, but train accidents still occur more frequently than in developed countries.
On Indian roads, the safest driving policy is to assume that other drivers will not respond to a traffic situation in the same way you would in the United States. For instance, buses often run red lights and merge directly into traffic at yield points and traffic circles. Cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians behave only slightly more cautiously. Indian drivers tend to look only ahead and often consider themselves responsible only for traffic in front of them, not behind or to the side. Frequent use of one's horn to announce presence is both customary and wise. It is usually preferable to have a licensed experienced driver who has a "feel" for road and driving conditions.

Rickshaws dodge and dive in and around each other, and giant buses often converge on your little rickity rickshaw like a hammer and anvil coming together. We’ve had a few experiences where the light to the front and back of us was narrowing quickly, and all of a sudden you’re not sure if you’ll make it through in time. Seen Indiana Jones before? The part where the boats are coming together and they almost get crushed. Yep. 

Anyways, add to countless breath-taking near-death experiences the fact that the air is so polluted and hot that it’s hard to breath at all, and you wonder how you ever make it anywhere alive. Really, though, they’re now tons of fun and we’re not even phased anymore. The way road rules work here is that they don’t, so people have to trust each other as drivers instead of trusting the law’s ability to keep people between the (nonexistent) lines painted on the pavement. This picture is just one, relatively calm and peaceful, intersection your rickshaw will cross on a normal day's commute.

Anyways, this is getting long. You'll have to catch the rest of the amazing trip in the next post!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Letter 2

I'm sitting here trying to think of what to say, what to pick and how to say it. it's been a long week, and we feel like we've learned so much. (and sorry if nothing is proper-cased, the shift keys in the internet cafe are sticky and not worth the effort).

i've been so touched by the stories i've heard. particularly of a woman who told us her story with so much passion and life in her. she contracted AIDS through her husband and found out while she was pregnant.she felt so scared and so unsure of what would happen to her and her baby girl. so much anguish and distress from a disease she did not know much about, and that suddenly made her stigmatized. through LEPRA - a foundation we are working with - she was able to be educated and receive help and just the support she needed. there's more to her story, and i can't do it justice, but it was so touching. now she works for LEPRA and does so much for others in the situation she was in. she's helped start a program to help positive individuals find spouses who are also positives so that the disease doesn't spread, and so many other things, and she's just one person in this organization, just one individual. we were so impressed with her and all the others, and with the organization overall.

we are finishing up our initial meetings with our partners this week and into next, and then we'll get started on nailing down and proposing our projects. it will entail meeting with the partners again to talk about specific projects, visiting communities to do needs assessments, and lots of asking questions and brainstorming. i'm so excited, and i hope i can contribute something meaningful and sustainable. i've already learned so much just from being here in india and from seeing the amazing people here who are making such a difference.

kyle will begin meeting with partners, but with a different aim. he will be getting to know them and finding out what HELP has been able to contribute and how our partnerships can improve. he'll be seeing how well projects from last year have held up. things are not as we expected, so he'll have some work to do, but i know he will do a great job.

aside from project work, we've done a few fun things too. gone to a bazaar, had lots of indian food, ridden lots of rickshaws (woohoo!), gone to see avengers again (indians loooove the hulk, they went crazy for him. oh, and also they have intermission - it just stopped in the middle of a big action scene. really funny), and just walked the streets.

tomorrow we're visiting a leper colony and meeting with another great partner about the dam project. then friday we're going to charminar - the 'old city' of hyderabad. should be great! oh, and we didn't go visit the tribal people this week after all due to some unforeseen stuff, but hopefully later if it works out.

here are some pictures. they're on fb too, but just in case you didn't see them. they were taken in a rural village a few hours away that is doing some great things to help themselves. super cool people.

(not to be confused with the famous bollywood star. they get so excited when they hear my name, it's great)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Letter 1

Taken from a letter sent to grandparents (minus the mushy stuff), as that's the most efficient way to do this via internet cafe. Hey, it's called letters from hyderabad anyway, isn't it?

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,
We’re safe in India and it’s been a busy few days! We are finally adjusting to the time change of about 12 hours. It is very hot here, but it’s actually not as hot as we were bracing ourselves for so that is a blessing. It still definitely sucks our energy, so along with the jet lag we’ve been a tired bunch. Luckily we’re adjusting well and we’ve been able to sleep a little extra when we need to.

The city we’re in is called Hyderabad. It’s a huge city of 7 million people, sprawled for what seems like forever. There aren't really any skyscrapers, so it’s just a huge area with lots of small or medium-sized buildings (and the taller ones look unfinished, with rebar sticking out of the top). It’s very colorful here and yet very dirty. The roads usually have lots of dirt, decaying bricks and garbage, and there are people everywhere. There are always new smells, some good and some bad. My nose hasn’t had a break. :)

The other remarkable thing has been the traffic. Oh my goodness, it’s as crazy as I’d ever imagined. Cars, buses, bikes, and rickshaws (three-wheel taxi cars) almost never stop, just filling in whatever space is there – no one pays attention to lines on the road. There is constant honking, but not as we know it. People honk just to let others know that they are there; so it’s a safety measure rather than a sign of annoyance or near-accident. Despite the craziness, I do not feel unsafe. The system is just different, and the drivers just trust everyone else to do their part. It’s definitely an adjustment, but it’s kind of fun.

So far, we have met with a few of the organizations we will be working with while we’re here. The first was a program to try and help villages end child labor. These children who are sent off to work do not get to go to school, so once they are pulled out of work they are not up to speed. So this organization also has a school designed to get them up to speed in 1-2 years. The intent is that then they can enter public schools and have a chance at a decent life. There are complications, but it is progress. We got to meet a class of girls and they told us their hopes and taught us songs and games. It was a great experience.

The other organization we’ve met with deals with different stigmatized medical conditions. They mostly help with leprosy, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. They provide testing, medical attention, and help to rehabilitate and support the people dealing with these diseases. It is such a great program, we were really impressed. We met people with leprosy and the other conditions and got to hear some of their stories. 

Next week, we will continue to meet our other partners before we get started helping them. I am especially excited for the end of next week because we are going to go and stay a few days with some tribal people in the north of our state (Andrha Pradesh) to learn about how a dam that is being built will displace them. We are hoping to do something to try and help lobby against this dam because it is unnecessary and will displace and end up killing many of these tribal peoples. I am really interested in this project, and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to go and stay with these people. Even our country director who is from here doesn’t know their language. We'll probably get to see a snake charmer, and who knows what else.

That's all for now. Our house and our teammates are awesome. There's just too much to tell. But we are safe and happy and doing great! India is definitely spicy all around.

Katrina and Kyle

 Some photos (none with my camera yet, but i'm excited for that):
Some of the girls at the school - beautiful spirits.
Kyle in front of a Hindu temple. So colorful!
We walked across this. We're getting pretty good. :)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

From Seattle to Dubai, and then...

Here we are, after a very enjoyable flight from SLC to Seattle, awaiting boarding our first ever international flight together! We've been thinking for a couple months now that the trip to Dubai from Seattle would be going west, skirting the Himalaya, and landing us in the Middle East after only 14 hours. Well, one only needs look at a map and can tell that isn't the truth. We looked up flight routes the other day and Kyle found map on a press release when Emirates Air first opened the Seattle-Dubai route.

In other words... We're flying NORTH! Right over the arctic, the polar bears, Santa Clause, the north pole, Mother Russia, etc. etc. etc. Oh and Canada too. We'll make sure to take some good snap shots of the Kremlin and the caribou as we go.

Then we've got three hours to stretch our legs, walk around Dubai (meaning the airport - we're not allowed to leave because of Katrina's illustrious past record), and possible base jump off that building Tom Cruise almost died on in MI 4. Then... HYDERABAD.

To say the least, we're pretty stoked. Last night we received priesthood blessings from Kyle's Grandfather, and were reminded so beautifully of the real reason we're going - to learn, to love the people, and to do what good we can. Kyle received some emails back from some of the people he'll be researching with and things seem to be falling into place there. We've also had some good ideas from HELP's partners on the type of work they'll be wanting. Katrina's trying to decide now where to put her energies.

So with little more ado, the next post will be from India!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Two days (+two days)

We're leaving in TWO DAYS! We leave on Tuesday and fly from Salt Lake to Seattle to Dubai to Hyderabad. When we land, it'll be Thursday in Hyderabad. So it'll be "four" days until we're there.

Thanks to everyone for your support and enthusiasm!! It has been such a blessing to have so much encouragement and help. We are really excited, and have lots of little things to tie up here... but really we wish we could just get on the plane right now.

Next post will likely be from India! It's so surreal... but so awesome!

And don't worry. We're bringing toilet paper.