My Uttar Pradesh Village Experience

I was overjoyed when my friend Ajay invited me to his village in Uttar Pradesh. We left Delhi in the evening and traveled all night by train to the Gorakhpur railway station. There we boarded a very crowded bus and after that we took a cab to his village. The village was close to Kushinagar, a major Buddhist site, which I’ll write about later. This post is about the long journey to Ajay’s home and the stay I had with his family.
First, the train journey. We had sleeping berths but it was impossible for me to sleep. Not only was it not private, but there were strangers in the same area so I felt uncomfortable closing my eyes. I sat up all night while Ajay and his younger brother slept. I guess you could say I was the sentry, since I had heard all kinds of stories about robberies aboard overnight trains. There were no problems of course, but my extreme awareness of everything bordered on paranoia. The police, patrolling the train throughout the night, with rifles slung over their shoulders, only exacerbated my fears.
When we reached Gorakhpur we stepped out into a crowded station. People were under blankets, sleeping everywhere. The station looked like a homeless shelter and I’m not so sure it wasn’t. We still had a bus and cab ride ahead of us. I felt like we were a long way from Delhi and modern civilization.
The cab driver that met us was from Ajay’s village and he was very nice. From that point on the trip became wonderful! We arrived at my friend’s family home. It was the nicest home in the farming village. Many children met us and seemed timid to approach me. They had never seen a westerner in their village.
Ajay’s family was so warm and hospitable to me. His family consisted of his younger brother, two younger sisters, an infant niece, and his mom and dad. Their home was nicely painted in pinks and greens. It had a big porch along the front and another building on the right side. The house was surrounded by farm lands, where they grew sugarcane, mustard greens and vegetables during the winters and wheat, paddy, and maize in the summer months. The fields were beautiful, covered in masses of yellow mustard flowers.
It was time to cut the sugarcane. The fields were full of women in bright saris cutting and stacking and carrying sugarcane on their heads. The pythons were forced out of the fields by the harvesting and wound up being the village children’s playthings.
This village still had no electricity, so the cooking was done over a fire.
Ajay’s sisters prepared the spices for our meals every day by crushing and grinding them with a stone. Getting the spices just right is what any Indian cook will tell you is the most important part of the cooking. The meals we ate there consisted of home grown vegetables and roti. Roti is flat bread, cooked on a flat griddle or tava. My duty was to keep the saag stirred as it cooked over the fire. Saag is a delicious mustard green dish. We had some great meals while I was there. All of the vegetables were taken fresh from the garden.
The days were sunny and we spent them in the fields, taking walks, talking to the village children. One day we took an excursion to Kushinagar.
That will be another story.
I approached the buffalo and he began dancing. I thought he liked me, but found out he wanted nothing to do with me. I tried milking the buffalo with barely any success, but watched as Ajay’s dad easily produced a big bucket of milk.
I chewed freshly cut sugar cane for the first time.
I watched the women of the village as they made fuel bricks, for heating and cooking, from buffalo dung and straw.
We took our baths outside as well, in a 3 sided concrete enclosure. I quickly got over my shyness, since this was the only way to keep clean. The infant had no diapers and was kept wrapped in blankets which were washed and cleaned daily. Houseflies swarmed around the child, but no one seemed bothered by this. Children have probably been raised diaperless for years and years in this village.
My favorite time was after dinner when the village became dark. I really felt like I was in a place that had been passed over by time. You can’t imagine how it feels to be so far away from any town and to be in total darkness. Heavy fog envelops the northern part of India in January. We would sit and talk around a bonfire. You could smell the fires in the air. Some of the villagers would surprise us as they emerged from the fog and approached us. When the fire died out we would go inside and hook a car battery to the TV to watch videos.
During our conversations they told me about a group of young thugs that had tried to gain entry into their home during the night, just two weeks earlier. For this reason we were sleeping behind locked iron gates and Ajay’s father slept with his rifle. After hearing that story I became distressed when the 3-legged dog barked all night. I was certain that robbers had heard there was a foreigner in town and were close by.
I thought about how far we were from any police station. How long would it take for a policeman to respond? My fears were just fears and the visit proved to be safe and filled with fun. I have to say this was the most memorable thing I have done in India. I was lucky enough to be able to experience the daily life of a villager in a remote village. A few months after my visit there the power company finally brought electricity to the village. I am happy I experienced it before that occurred.

Village Man on CartLoading CartVillage Cows Feeding

Spirituality Surrounds You In India

From the moment you wake on the first morning the religious and spiritual nature of Indians will be apparent to you. You’ll hear the sounds of the morning calls to worship, broadcast over loudspeakers and public address systems. You’ll hear the mosques just before 6 am and the Sikh loudspeakers start shortly afterwards. I’ve grown to love this morning alarm and reminder to say my morning prayers. It brings a smile to my face every time, when I realize I am among the most diverse and spiritual people on Earth. It’s like hearing a church bell ring on Sunday morning. A reminder that there is somewhere I should be or something I should be doing.

India celebrates every religious holiday. They celebrate not only the Hindu holidays and festivals, but also the Islam, Sikh, and Christian. Most people work six days per week, but they have many days off for holidays, weddings, etc. To an Indian, family and faith are the two most important things in life and employers make provisions to allow time off for that.

You will see many variants of these faiths among the population. There are many Swamis and Yogis that teach their pathways to God or enlightenment.

Jains, a branch of Hinduism, believes that God is within every animate and inanimate thing. They will not harm any living creature, even insects. Nudism is also allowed.

Buddhism was also an offshoot of Hinduism. You will see Buddhist stupas (buildings that house the prayer wheels) and brightly colored prayer flags in many areas of India, particularly the area around Khushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, the northeastern states that border China and Nepal, and also in Varanasi. There, on the side of the Ganga River, the monks in their saffron robes mingle with the hordes of Hindus, Jains, Sadhus (reclusive spiritual men), and others.

The Baha’i faith, a religion which began in Persia, has the lovely Lotus Temple in Delhi and other temples, including one I visited in Pushkar. The basis of this religion is belief in one God, a belief that all major religions have the same spiritual source, and a belief that all people are created equal regardless of race or culture.

Christians are also present in the larger cities, with many in the states of Kerala and Goa, which was once ruled by Portugal. The Christians I’ve seen have been mostly Catholic, but there are Protestant Christian missionaries working in all parts of India. Some of these missions have not been viewed favorably by Hindus that are concerned about Hindu Christian conversions.

Most of my visits to India have been during December and January, so I have seen the Christian celebrations for Christmas. On my very first visit, I entered my hotel lobby which was decorated with a large Christmas tree, got my key, and boarded the elevator which was filled with the sounds of Jim Reeves Christmas.

India is so diverse and so integrated that most Hindus know as much as we do about the Bible and the Quran. And most Muslims know a lot about Hinduism as well.

Everyone is entertained by Bollywood, which is fully integrated with all religions. They sing the same songs and know the history and moral stories from all the faiths.

I remember once I was attending a concert of Zakir Hussein, one of India’s most famous tabla players. Even though he is a Muslim, he told the audience many Hindu stories during his performance.

Once once I was at Birla Temple in Jaipur and I saw Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, engraved into the marble pillars along the front of the temple. All of these things came as a surprise to me, since in the West we make so much of our differences, rather than our similarities. Most Christians I know would adamantly refuse to believe that they have any common beliefs with Hindus.

There is every variant of swami or yogi. Some are ascetic and live simply and others have elaborate ashrams and temples. Rishikesh is a good place to go if you want to study yoga under a yogi. Swamis, are also in Rishikesh and all over India. These Hindu holy men teach spiritualism.

One of the most extravagant modern day temples, devoted to a Swami, that I’ve seen is Akshardam Temple in Delhi. This is a must see location and great if you are traveling with children. It has some of the most beautiful sculptures and carvings, an IMAX film about their swami, a Disney-like boat ride of some length that teaches you about Indian history and India’s contributions to mankind, and a dancing water fountain that’s choreographed to music every evening.

Many families have their own swami that helps oversee the spiritual development of the children. I met one of these swamis in Bangalore, who feeds 300 hungry kids every week. I enjoyed that day with the kids and even enjoyed helping wash all those stainless steel plates!

Vegetarianism is also not just a food choice, but a conscious effort not to impose pain on any living creature. It has a spiritual basis. Christians and Muslims eat meat, along with some of the modern day Hindus. You won’t find pork anywhere and beef you will only find in Muslim areas. Most carnivores eat only chicken, goat, and fish. I remember being on a flight to India once that ran out of vegetarian meals. People had forgotten to request a vegetarian meal prior to the flight. That was the closest thing to a riot that I had ever seen! I gave up my vegetarian meal to one of the vegetarians. When I am in India now I always eat vegetables only, mostly because I’ve gotten sick the few times I’ve tried to eat meat due to poor refrigeration of the meat, but also because I think Indian vegetarian food is some of the best in the world.

Some Indians I know don’t understand my attraction to the spiritual side of India. Being immersed in it every day, and not having a contrasting viewpoint of other cultures, they don’t see the pervasive spiritual presence in India. They don’t know that people don’t line up to pay homage to God every morning in the West. I have never seen this, all faith devotion, in any other culture. Indians also don’t know that we don’t normally have spiritual conversations in the West, but it is a common thing there.

Poverty In India

One of the hardest things you will face when you visit India is the overwhelming poverty that exists there. You’ll see it almost immediately as you move from the airport, through the streets, to your hotel. Beggars will be tapping on the window of your taxi, and when they see a foreigner they will surround the car begging for rupees. A lot of them will be women with small infants in their arms, signaling by hand gesture, that they are hungry and need money for food. Others will have cheap items for sale. Some of the smallest children are doing acrobatics and tricks to amuse you and collect your rupees.
It is extremely hard to turn your head and ignore their pleas for assistance. There are so many of them. Yet Indians of means do turn their heads and they suggest to us tourists and visitors to do the same thing. If you have a conscience and compassion for others that is a difficult thing to do.
I have seen so many severe cases of poverty and need. I was traveling one day in a cab on very congested roads in Delhi and I looked out of the window and I see a young boy, with no legs, pulling himself along, in the middle of that traffic, on a makeshift board with wheels. Who knows what happened to this little boy’s legs. Maybe some disease or accident, but his disability could have been a deliberate act, to help him earn money for his family. This happens a lot among the poor, when they feel desperate and have no other options.
Once I was in Gurdaspur, a small city in Punjab state. I was in a cab, on an unsuccessful quest to find some tampons. We were moving slowly through the congested streets and I saw, in the distance, a boy of about 9 years old, running behind his mother. He had a tumor coming from his right eye that hung almost to his waist. I had the urge to jump out of the cab and run after them. I didn’t because they disappeared so suddenly and the traffic was so bad, but I never got that young boy off of my mind. I couldn’t imagine the life he was living with that tumor. The ridicule of other children must’ve been great. Was he even able to go to school? I went back to that place and asked many people if they knew who he was and where he lived. I was determined to get him some help, to find a doctor willing to remove that tumor and return this boy to a more normal state. Sadly, I was unable to locate him.
Another year, I attended the Pushkar Camel Festival in Rajasthan state. I’ve never been real interested in the sales booths, etc designed to lure tourists so I decided to walk into the area where the desert tribal people were camping during the festival. I wanted to see the life they lived and speak to some of them if possible. I was lucky enough to run into a family, with four children, that had brought their camels and livestock to the fair from the Thar desert of Jaisalmer. They had walked and driven their livestock 400 kms to show and trade them. They invited me to sit in their tent with them. They were making chai tea and we sat there for over an hour talking about their nomadic life, always moving their tents from one place to another. These people are considered gypsies by the Indians. The children were excited about having a foreigner amongst them. They were very inquisitive and asked me a lot of questions. They were shocked to find I was in my 40s and was unmarried without children.
When I finally got up to leave, after at least 8 small cups of tea, the young mother stood up and took the infant that had been breastfeeding as we talked from her breast and she handed him to me. “Please take him and let him have a good life” she said. I saw so much hope and compassion in her eyes as she prepared to say goodbye to her newborn infant. Of course I was unable to take the child. I explained to her that I couldn’t leave the country with a child , without a proper adoption. She understood and, looking very disappointed, she returned the child to her breast. I said my goodbyes and began to move on and she stopped me. “Please take these things for your kindness” she said, as she began removing the heavy silver jewelry she was wearing. It appeared that these things were the only things of value she owned. I explained to her how happy I was to meet her and her family, but that I could not take her necklace and bangles.
I was in a village in Uttar Pradesh state once. The children, once again, were very curious about a foreigner. I noticed that almost every child had some form of birth defect. In addition to the obvious things like missing toes, cleft lips, etc there are also a lot of children suffering from defects like spina bifida, a disability caused by a lack of pre-natal care and the lack of folic acid during the pregnancy. It’s such a shame that pregnant mothers don’t get proper care. I was so moved by this need that I began trying to help some of the children affected by this affliction. I am pleased to report that the first young man I helped has become an IT engineer and recently gotten married.
If you visit and are also moved to take action I would suggest that you find a local NGO and offer to volunteer. There are so many people in need that the hardest part of this task is choosing who to help.
The elderly, without families, live in buildings that are much worse than most stables in the west. They walk around with cataracts so thick that it renders them blind. Some of the NGOs concentrate on cataract clinics and offer cataract operations as cheaply as $6 per eye, so a generous donation could go a long way to help a grandmother once again see her grandchildren.
There are no provisions for the handicapped there. I have helped NGOs, which deal with the disabled, provide wheelchairs to the needy, but without ramps and smooth sidewalks these people are still basically homebound.
I assisted another NGO which worked with the Delhi slum kids in simple health projects. I remember how happy a group of kids were to jump into a big tub of hot water for a much needed bath.
Everywhere you go you see people sleeping along the roads, in the open with no shelter. I’ve given so many coats and shawls away during the years I’ve been going to India. Now I pre-plan to buy a new coat for the trip and find someone to give it to before I leave.
One of the great traditions of India is to give to the poor on your birthday, rather than taking gifts for yourself. It’s a drop in the bucket for a population of 1.27 billion, but it is at least a good gesture of compassion toward the poor. 96% of Indians live on less than $5 a day. 33% pf the total population live on less than $1.25 daily. No wonder they protest when the price of onions or vegetables increase!
You must be thinking that the poor must be living in misery and unable to enjoy life, but I have observed that unless a person is sick or disabled they normally have smiles on their faces. They accept their life as it is and know no other, so they make the best of what they have. Family and faith in God bind them together. Spirituality is apparent in their daily lives. Nowhere on Earth will you see so many people lined up to enter temples every morning. It reminds me of that old Billie Holiday song, “God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own.”

My Experiences WIth Medical Care In India

I’ve been to India so many times I was bound to need some medical care while there. I have found the medical care to be quite good and inexpensive, but there are some differences from the US.

My worst accident occurred on my 2nd day of a month-long trip. The airlines misplaced my luggage and I had gone shopping for some essentials to tide me over. I was on a city bus with 2 bags in each hand. The bus stopped and I moved to the spiral type stairs to descend from the bus. I was not holding the handrail because of the shopping. The crowd behind me surged and I was basically shoved out onto the Amritsar street. My hands landed, thank God, protecting my face and head from injury, but my arms were separated from my hands, totally crushing both wrists. Immediately my hands began to swell. In just a short time they resembled boxing gloves!

I made my way back to my friend’s house, my bags hanging on my elbows. I could not take care of myself. I couldn’t comb my hair, dress, brush my teeth, or go to the bathroom. My friend’s young sister was given responsibility for me. She slept in my bed and would get up with me if I had to go to the bathroom. She dressed, fed, and cared for me for a couple of days until the swelling began to go down, then we finally decided to go see a doctor.

First we needed x rays, so we stopped by a radiologist’s office and asked him to take pictures of both wrists. The x rays were not ordered by the doctor. We just walked in and got them taken. The equipment they used was probably used equipment from the West. It was old but it did the job and the cost was minimal, under $10. Then we went to see the Orthopaedic doctor. He took one look at the x rays and said he had never seen wrists more crushed than mine and recommended that I extend my trip and hire someone to care for me. He wanted to put plaster casts on BOTH arms! I had to meet one of my young spina bifida patients later in the trip and had also planned to travel to some areas I had not seen. I asked for an alternative. “There is no alternative I would recommend,” the doctor said. I told him I would have to rely on Velcro braces for each arm, which could be removed when I needed to care for myself. He reluctantly fitted me with two braces. He said, “I feel so sorry that you have come all this way to do something for India and you have wound up in this condition.” “There will be no charge for your pain med, the braces, or this visit.”

My decision not to have the plasters was not a good one, but something I had to do to get me through the trip. My friends were wonderful. My friends in Delhi and Khajuraho seemed not to mind feeding and caring for me. People have asked me how I managed not to cut the trip short and it’s due in most part to the spa like treatment I received from my friends. I love them so much!

I am right-handed and I guess I may have used my right hand a bit too much and it didn’t heal right. I wound up having to have surgery on that arm when I returned. Lesson learned: Always hold the rail when getting off of a bus.

On another trip I was running down a marble staircase to show off some new Indian suits I had just picked up from the tailor. I slipped on my dupatta (the scarf that accompanies the outfit) and fell backwards. Again it was my fault. I failed to turn the light on the stairs and was running in the dark. Luckily I didn’t hit my head on those hard stairs, but I did hit my right shoulder causing a hairline crack in my rotator cuff. It was a very painful injury. I was rushed to a small doctor’s clinic and x rays were taken. My arm was put in a sling and a doctor was assigned to take care of me. Dr. Singh came to my residence every day to check on me. He was diligent and kind and monitored my pain level and range of movement. I was very satisfied with the oil I was given to massage into my shoulder and his attentive medical care, but strangely he never physically examined my shoulder. He seemed frightened to touch me! Lesson learned: Always turn on lights and never run on the stairs!

On another visit I was off the sidewalk in an area that was rough. I tried to step up onto a wall and my clog fell off, causing me to fall and hit my knee on the marble walkway. This was again my fault. I knew I had a sore knee but I didn’t realize it was swelling so badly. I got back to my hotel and discovered I had a huge knee and had to have water removed from my knee. The care I got was good and painless. Lesson learned: Stay on proper pathways!
Note:  Even proper sidewalks have a lot of potential hazards. Always look down when you are walking to avoid any broken sidewalks, potholes, etc.

I’ve had Delhi belly a few times but I now know what pill I need for that and normally go straight to a pharmacy when I arrive and get a handful of them. I never needed a prescription for that and I don’t even know the name of the medicine, but I know what it looks like. I ask for the long yellow pill for diarrhea and they know what I am looking for.

One of the worst cases of this was in Jaipur. I was on the back of a friend’s motorbike and we were heading to one of the forts surrounding the city for a picnic with a group of others. We passed a man on the side of the road that was frying chicken and it smelled really good, so we decided to take some to the picnic. Everyone that ate it got sick within a few minutes. We were on top of a mountain and all on motorbikes. We couldn’t get home fast enough. Hahaha Lesson learned: Never buy meat on the street that hasn’t been refrigerated.

Another time I seemed to have a urinary infection on the day before I was scheduled to take the 23 hour trip home. I called the doctor on a Friday and he kept the office open, and the lab staff there, until my urine was tested. Sure enough I had an infection, which I am prone to. I was given the proper medicine and one pill cured me. Total cost for this was $50. Not bad for an after hours visit, lab work, and medicine.
Overall I’ve been quite satisfied with the care I’ve received in India.

One Day When God Spoke To Me

The Women That Approached Me

The Women That Approached Me

I was at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I had just arrived and was walking among the throngs of people, looking for a place to sit down and peacefully meditate.

A group of women and children approached me. They were wrapped in the simple shawls of villagers. The eldest woman said “you look like a holy figure to us.” I was embarrassed by their attention and didn’t know what to say. I smiled and said thank you and walked away.

I found my spot and sat down to meditate. I was there about 45 minutes, eyes closed in deep meditation. Suddenly I hear this deep voice. “Go find those women and tell them we are ALL holy figures.”
I was shocked and surprised and even tried arguing with the voice. I said they must be long gone by now. How would I ever find them among all these thousands of people? Remember, they feed 10,000 or more a day at the Golden Temple!
Again I heard the voice. “I said, go find those women and give them my message.” Goosebumps ran all over me. I was not about to try arguing again.
I stood up and turned around.

Those same women were walking toward me, only 15 feet away! I couldn’t believe it. Why were they back?

They approached me and said, “we came back to take a photo with you before we go.” “Wonderful” I said, but I also have a message for you! “I was just told to tell you that we are ALL holy figures.” They were so full of joy when I delivered the message.

“Let’s take your picture. Where’s your camera?” I said. “We don’t have a camera.” Strange. What did they want?

“Well then, I will take a picture with my camera.” I smiled and said. We had a stranger take the picture, then I said “Let me email you a copy. What’s your email?” Again they gave me a strange answer. They said “We don’t have any email.” I was so sorry I couldn’t get the photo to them, we hugged and they walked away happy.

I think these women were holy women themselves and they wanted ME to have a photo with THEM, in order for me to remember this day…the day God spoke to me at the Golden Temple.