Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chandelao - Week 5

Hoopoe looking for ants in the hotel courtyard.

Animals and Birds
We are regularly surprised about amount and variety of the wildlife in and around Chandelao. With every scrap of usable land given over to agriculture, sparse vegetation and little water it would not seem on the face of it to be a good place for animal and bird watching. Sandy has now identified 63 species of birds, and seen many others that he has been unable to match with a picture in Grimmett's Birds of Northern India. Two rapidly drying up local lakes are frequented by ducks and other water birds, and there are wild peacocks everywhere.
Spotted owlet outside a hotel window
On the furry side of the animal kingdom we have seen 2 kinds of antelope and one kind of gazelle. A few nights ago Sandy was surprised by a large, black, bristly wild sow jumping out of a ditch and squealing down the track in front of him followed by six tiny piglets. Last night we heard jackals howling in the distance, and this evening we caught sight of a mongoose. Some wildlife encounters are less welcome – we hear ominous squeakings and rustlings when it is dark, and one night, Sandy woke up to find a little mouse on his pillow. A little gecko hides out in the shutters, and yellow wasps hatch out in the rotting wood.

The caste system is very strong in this part of India, and we have gradually become more aware of it among the various local people we know. There are about 12 castes represented in this village, from Rajputs (the former rulers and warriors) to shepherds (the most numerous) and on down to musicians, farmers, gardeners, manual laborers, and blacksmiths at the bottom. Even though in modern India the caste does not determine the profession – there are no bus driver or computer programmer castes – many aspects of life, especially marriage, are strictly organized along caste lines.
We see how much of a self fulfilling prophecy is the caste into which someone is born. We find ourselves liking and encouraging the well-dressed, clean, well behaved and educated high-caste children, and avoiding the uneducated, pushy, grubby, badly behaved low-caste children. Some aspects of the system are quite obnoxious and incomprehensible to us. Some of the workmen who came to do some repairs to the hotel refused to eat the meals provided for them because the dishes were washed by a lower caste hotel kitchen worker.
Ding Dong Bell
Local ladies, and water truck collecting
water from the lake.
The school and many of the homes have their own well, which, after the monsoon rain is depleted, is filled by the local water tanker. This week we learned that these wells have to be cleaned out regularly. The low water and poor quality of water from the school's well led to an interesting and distracting spectacle: a barefoot teacher was lowered fifteen feet underground on a thin rope, from where he sent up buckets of silt and mud to the surface for disposal by a chain of young boys. One brave youth subsequently joined the teacher down the well and helped load the buckets. Lin was allowed to peer down into the well and wave to those below. Surprisingly, the teacher and his helper emerged with spotless shirts and only muddy feet, before the tanker was called and the tank refilled. This unexpected mid-morning entertainment was definitely worth recording, but unfortunately Lin did not have her camera with her.
Stars and Planets
The past few days as we dine on the hotel rooftop, we have been treated to a wonderful show in the early night sky, with a pale new moon hanging low in the western sky and a brilliant Venus and Jupiter above. In the east, Mars rises orange. The air is so clear and dry and we are so far from any large cities, that the night sky is breathtakingly beautiful – it is even more spectacular during a power cut.
Things that surprise Lin's chai-drinking lady friends
Lin's chai-drinking lady friends, and son.
  • We have a house with 5 bedrooms, with a bed for each member of the family
  • We have a machine for washing dishes as well as one for clothes
  • We don't have our own cow or goat, or even a dog
  • We get along well with our daughters-in-law, and do not have to nag them constantly to keep them in line.
  • Our sons and their families have their own houses and do not live with us.
  • Lin doesn't keep her face covered and eyes lowered when talking to Sandy, though she has taken to putting a scarf/shawl round her neck, if only to keep out some of the dust.
  • She does not wear lots of jewellery, bangles from wrist to shoulder, earrings, nose-piercings, necklaces and a jewelled headband, to show off her wealth and status as a wife.
  • She is also taken for a widow because she doesn't wear make-up, nail-polish or henna designs on hands and feet.
  • Toddlers in Pennsylvania wear diapers and do not run around outside with bare bottoms.
  • We take walks together for pleasure and relaxation.
  • We allow our lips to touch the cup when we drink water, and are a source of amusement when we spill it down our necks.
Inder Singh - smiling hotel factotum
Things we will miss
This week the hotel will be completely full, and we are being politely requested to leave for 2 nights. This coincides perfectly with a “mid-term retreat”the FSD encourages us to take, so we are going on a two day trip to Pushkar. It is a pretty spot in the hills about four hours from here. It is famous for two things: a camel fair in autumn, which we will miss, and as a major pilgrimage destination. Pushkar has the only temple in India dedicated to Brahma. Brahma was the creator of the universe in Hindu mythology, but due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with his wife he was cursed and permitted to have only one temple. We will stay in a lake-side hotel, and are looking forward to shopping at the famous bazaar that fills the streets around the temple.
When we get back, we will have only one week left in Chandelao, and we are already thinking about all the things we will miss.
  • Fresh home made yoghurt with our cereal every morning, served by smiling men in turbans.
  • Frequent cups of hot, spicy chai.
  • Parrot and peacock wake up calls, along with temple chanting, drums and bells
  • Children shouting “Pratigya” and “Sandee” at us in the street. (Pratigya is Lin's adopted Hindi name, and “Linda” jokes are already long forgotten)
  • Delicious mithai
    Warm, dry, cloudless weather and brilliant night skies
  • Ladies dressed in intense orange, red, pink, green, turquoise and blue native dress, stitched with gold and silver thread, sequins and mirrors, even when working on building sites, cutting wood, milking cows, cooking, and cleaning.
  • Cows wandering along the streets, into courtyards and even school
  • The morning and evening visit from a hoopoe which pecks for ants in the hotel lawn
  • The “no light” warning that the electricity is not working.
  • The “daily dusting” that ensures we are never dust-free.
  • Delicious sweets made of milk, cream, butter, sugar, nuts, and flavorings – and no chocolate.
  • The school kids' friendly chorus of welcome and “See you tomorrow” in Hindi and English.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Life in Chandelao

Two of Lin's pupils doing after-school chores
The weather so far in Chandelao has been wonderful. Every day is dry and clear. We have seen only a few wispy clouds, and at night the sky is crystal clear and blazing with stars and planets. The humidity is uniformly low – 15-25% – so anything we wash is dry in a few hours at most – even Lin's hair. The temperature goes in waves, so for a few days the daytime high gradually increases, then it decreases. However, each peak and trough is higher than the previous one. 10 days ago we had an early morning temperature of 8 C (46 F). With the low humidity and no heating, it was bone-chilling, and we kept our thick sweaters on all day. This Monday was our hottest day so far – 32 C (90 F) – and very pleasant. Now, it is starting to get cooler again, but not as cool as last week. In summer (May, June) it reaches 45 C (113 F) or higher most days. Then, the hotel guests may opt to spend the night on the rooftop or in the courtyard. We are glad we will not be here then.

The greenhouse project and vegetable growing
Some of you may be wondering why, with this hot weather, we need a greenhouse. Although in the winter the greenhouse will keep the temperature up and allow a longer season for warm weather crops, the main reason is to keep the moisture in and the humidity high. Water is in short supply, and with the low humidity and dry air, any water applied to plants evaporates from the ground very quickly. In addition to losing precious water, this also increases the salinity of the soil, eventually making it unusable. This happened near the huge Indira Gandhi canal. When it was first built, the fields were constantly flooded with water and were highly productive for a few years. Now many have become unusable because of high salinity.

Farmer cutting fresh spinach
A few days ago, Sandy visited a vegetable farm to gain some insights into local cultivation methods and what grows well – and sells well – here. It was an interesting visit. The farmer was a real expert in producing the maximum from his two acres, with judicious irrigation and applications of cow and goat manure. He produces 4!! crops from each patch of ground every year. In winter spinach, cabbage, and cauliflower, in the spring and autumn tomatoes, eggplants, and chili peppers, and in the summer various varieties of hot-weather greens. They have abundant water from a deep well, and in the summer the water does double duty. First it is used to fill a large swimming pool which he charges the locals a few rupees for using, then at night he runs some water out of the pool to water the crops. My colleague Hannah and I fell upon the spinach crop, as it was the first fresh green vegetable we had seen for some weeks – the spinach we eat is always cooked in butter with potato or paneer – and very tasty it was. We thought we had found a source of delicious organic vegetables until we asked whether they had any problems with caterpillars and other pests. The farmer then produced a bottle of an extremely noxious pesticide banned for use in the US except in the most extreme cases!

Our friend Deepu making chai using
the most reliable local utility -- wood.
We have plenty of water here at the moment, and when the big underground tank starts to get low, a tractor pulling a large, colorfully painted tanker arrives to refill it. The water in the tanker comes from the local lake, where ducks and buffalo swim. It is left to settle in the tank and is perfectly clean for washing, showering and laundry. For drinking water, we go to the kitchen and refill our bottles with “Aquaguard” filtered water. Aquaguard, the ubiquitous brand of water purifier in India, is also used for washing vegetables and cooking, and it is obviously pretty effective as we have so far managed to avoid any stomach upsets.
Electricity is intermittent and provided by the government grid – sometimes – and by the hotel's diesel generator – sometimes. They use 5-amp round pin plugs, familiar to us from our British childhoods. We are always careful to make sure that our computer and other battery-powered gadgets are plugged in to charge when the electricity is on. This led to a minor disaster last week when the generator was switched on early in the morning. A short circuit sent a very high voltage through the hotel system and burned out three computer power packs, and a television set, not to mention causing a small electrical fire in Hannah's room. No lasting damage was done however, and the computer repair shop in Jodhpur got some unexpectedly welcome business.
Television – none, not that we have ever watched it anyway.
Internet – We have a clever little dongle that plugs into the computer and makes a cell phone call to a computer center somewhere. It is surprisingly efficient and amazingly cheap. It has allowed Sandy to complete the rewriting and reorganization of the Chandelao web site at, as well as to post our interminable blog entries.

The beharupiya as Rama
The Beharupiya
For the past few evenings, there have been crowds of screaming children following a tall, thin, strangely dressed man through the streets. He is a beharupiya – an itinerant street performer and comedian, with many disguises. The first time we saw him he was dressed all in yellow as a holy man; the next night, with a bow and arrow, as Rama, a major Hindu deity; the following day draped in a pink sari he was a female milk vendor in full Rajasthani costume with a milk pot glued to his/her head; and finally he portrayed a witch. He goes from door to door, shouting out the lines of a chant to which the children respond. Some of the residents give him money or food. He looks as if he enjoys his job, and his presence in the village for a few days is a source of great excitement.

Cricket and children's games
Ever a popular game since the Brits introduced it here, cricket is played in the dusty streets or on a field near the lake, where we have been invited to join in games. The decorated bats look home-made and the players use a tennis ball, but the young men and boys are enthusiastic and focused, even without white clothes and wickets. Just knowing Tendulkar's name has led us into lengthy conversations about how well India has played against Sri Lanka, how exciting the matches are down under, and which countries have no good players.

Hopscotch, Chandelao-style
The children play a game similar to hopscotch in squares they mark out in the dust. Marbles are another favorite, and Lin's silk scarf was even used for a demonstration of Blind Man's Buff.

Morning and evening, drums and bells summon us to prayers at the local Hindu temples, where an elderly priest can be paid to say a “puja” for friends and family, with rituals involving rice, spices and pieces of coconut. He picks a suitably propitious moment according to astrological charts and the dates and times of birth of those involved.

Brass bands and loud drumming accompany wedding parties through the streets, men solemnly accompanying the unsmiling groom on his horse, ladies in colorful saris and children dancing and singing songs of welcome.

In the craft center, ladies and girls sing quietly as they sew, stitch, and thread beads and bells. They like popular songs from romantic Bollywood movies as well as traditional songs from the Ramayana.

Spoonbills at the local lake

There are endless opportunities for taking photographs in the community. Apart from the little children who assume every visitor has a camera and wants to take pictures of them, the ladies' colorful clothes, the clear bright light of day and soft evening colors at sunset, the warm glow of pink sandstone walls and fences, the seemingly fearless hawks and owls, parakeets, herons, spoonbills, and hoopoes, tempt even the most inept photographer.
The local ladies are happy for us to photograph them elegantly carrying pots of water from the well, bundles of wood from the fields, bowls of building rubble, or cow and goat droppings on their heads.
An invitation to a villager's house involves an introduction to all the family members of at least three generations, a shy willingness to be photographed, and an expectation that we will want to take pictures of the family goat, cow, buffalo, cat and puppy, as well. They let us take pictures of their stoves, their grinding stones, haystacks and dung heaps, charpoy beds and household shrines. Actions that might be considered intrusive in other cultures seem welcome here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More from Chandelao

We are finding the little Hindi we learned before we came here to be quite useful. Most people are really surprised that we know any at all, and we can carry on conversations in our fractured Hindi and their fractured English. Some of the locals speak quite a lot of English, but often with a very strong accent and with a lot of Hindi words thrown in. They are “fluently incomprehensible” as Lin puts it. The local language in Chandelao is Marwari. It is a bit like Hindi, but most of the useful words are different, so when the locals are speaking to each other it is completely meaningless to us. The English teacher in the school where Lin teaches speaks very little English, and the Hindi-English vocabulary book they use in the school is weirdly antiquated, with translations of English phrases like “Birds of a feather flock together” into their Hindi equivalents. We have adopted the phrase “I am not buttering you” from the electronics store keeper in Jodhpur, where Sandy spent time getting new converter/adapter boxes for his computer this week, after the hotel generator had a problem with crossed wires and blew out anything that was plugged in overnight. Telling Sandy he looks not a day over 48 was a “buttering” he could enjoy.

Marwari Cow with calf
Goat and cows and other animals
Over 80% of the population of India are farmers of one kind or another. Here in Chandelao, the majority of farmers look after animals – primarily goats. Every evening we meet mixed flocks of goats and sheep being brought home for the night. They seem to find plenty of dry desert vegetation to eat, and are often put into the fields to graze where sorghum has been grown and harvested. The goats provide rich milk and “mutton”, which is the only red meat in the local diet of non-vegetarians.
Cows are kept close to the house, and sometimes share the living space with their keepers. As the cows are holy animals, they are well looked after. You seldom see them grazing the fields and they are mostly fed chopped sorghum. The Marwari cows are rather beautiful, with white coats, droopy ears and big dark eyes with long lashes that look as if been made up with mascara. Many of these well-kept cows have calves at present so there is plenty of milk, butter and cheese. The cows also provide manure, which is carefully collected and used for many purposes – fertilizer, fuel, and an odor-free, insect-repelling plaster coating for walls and floors. We always have to remove our shoes before stepping onto the cow-dung coated part of the a courtyard.
There are street cows as well. They hang around the houses waiting for handouts, of which there are plenty. There is a saying here that “The first chapati is for the cow”, so every housewife at breakfast, lunch, and dinner provides a fresh chapati for the local cows, before she starts making them for her family. Of course, nobody eats beef, and, surprisingly, many people are unaware that cows are eaten in other parts of the world. One of Lin's fellow teachers declared that Texas must be “a very bad place” when he heard that they raise a lot of cattle for beef there. Lin agreed, but more politically with George W. in mind. When the street cows are too old to be useful, or are injured in traffic accidents, they are often taken to cow shelters, many of which are on the sides of major roads. There they end their days being fed high-quality grass purchased in 10-rupee bunches by passing motorists.
Stubborn water buffalo calf with happy keeper
The other animals we see quite a lot of are water buffalo, which are large, black and surly, with heavy horns. They are taken down to the lake in the evening by small boys with big sticks. They are cousins to the cows, so are not killed for meat, but they are regularly whacked on their rear ends. They also provide very tasty milk and yoghurt.
We also see domesticated sheep, camels, dogs and cats, but no pigs or chickens. Dogs are fed on table scraps and leftovers, so some are quite fat. There are a number of semi-wild dogs in the village who conduct choruses of barking and howling at odd hours of the night. The hotel has two dogs; Hazel – a very fat yellow Labrador, and Kitty – an affectionate dachshund.

As we are in the desert and it has not rained since September, there is dust everywhere. This means that all surfaces must be swept regularly. Sweeping is accomplished, usually by women, with various types of whisk made of grass or other plant material. Sweeping involves redistributing dust, and I am now watching one of the hotel cleaning ladies sweeping out a guest room. Clouds of dust are issuing from the door, and, as there is a slight breeze, it is blowing straight back in. Some surfaces are made of dust, but they are also regularly swept to remove any leaves or debris, and to leave a nice pattern of sweep marks. So, even though no dust is actually removed, it is prettily rearranged.

Sandy's Work
We are here to work after all, so a few words on progress so far. I have established a nice “office” in the hotel, on an outdoor porch with a small desk, a comfortable chair and a fine view of the hotel courtyard. I am mostly not too distracted by birds and other sights and sounds. So far I have rewritten and redesigned most of the hotel web site, and am working on getting the hotel listed, or listed correctly, on more travel web sites such as Expedia, Lonely Planet, Frommers and TripAdvisor. I am also trying to redesign the web site for the women's craft center, but that is turning out to be a bit more challenging. The greenhouse project is also making some progress. Last week I visited a local market garden near Jodhpur and was very impressed with how intensive and productive vegetable growing can be, even in this desert environment. With liberal application of cow and goat manure and plenty of well water, the farmer was producing 4 crops of high quality vegetables in succession from his land every year. We have also settled on a greenhouse design, and I have drawn up plans and operating instructions for a compost heap.

Teachers and students at Lin's school, with new whiteboard
Lin's Work
Dust and discomfort notwithstanding, I am enjoying my enthusiastic classes, and seeing a noticeable improvement in their English skills.
I have written and submitted a seed-grant proposal to FSD for supplies and materials for the school. It has not been difficult to justify providing for the needs I have identified. Thanks to a generous gift from a couple of Brits travelling through, I was able to try out a combination white-board/chalkboard that has been so successful with the teachers and kids that I plan to purchase 7 more, so that each class will have one. Since one of the young philanthropists was a wanna-be geography teacher, I am putting in an order for globes with Hindi or English writing, again one for each class. Apart from pens, pencils and notebooks, I will also be able to buy laminated maps and educational posters, and hope to start a small library collection of rhymes and stories for younger kids, and science and social studies readers for older ones. I am waiting for the go-ahead from FSD, so that I can get into town, and hopefully start using the new materials with classes before I leave in mid-March.
I attended a Saturday vocabulary/spelling-quiz contest between classes, that has the kids competing to spell a word in English starting with the last letter of the previous word, pronouncing it, and giving its meaning in Hindi, all at break-neck speed, which leaves me the listener quite breathless and not at all sure which word has been invoked. They certainly need to know a lot of words that start with “e”.

Lin's hands after mehndi treatment
Henna, Beads and Bells
As well as a colorant for hair, henna is used to decorate hands and feet for girls and young women, especially for weddings and special events. Of course, Lin couldn't resist an offer to have hers worked on, and now sports beautiful orange “mehndi” designs on the front and back of her hands, and on the sides and tops of her feet. The orange fingernails may not lose their hue for a couple of months, but the hand-art is fading, especially after she washes clothes in Tide. Mehndi usually lasts about ten days. To complete the picture she sported a red bindi stick-on spot between her eyebrows for a couple of days.
In addition, her two silk scarves now have a pretty hand-sewn bead trim, Rajasthani style, thanks to the work of a skilled fifteen year old, and she wears a Valentine's Day friendship bracelet of red wool with gold bells.

Lin with some chai-drinking friends
We have enjoyed visiting people's homes and offices and drinking a welcoming cup of masala chai, the spicy boiled tea that has added milk, sugar and cardamom, sometimes with other spices. It is an essential part of local hospitality. Chai is also served at breakfast, lunch and dinner at our hotel, and we seldom turn down a chance to drink it.

Rajasthan – the Jodhpur area in particular – is famous for desserts and sweets. Most of the desserts involve large quantities of milk, butter, sugar and flavorings in various combinations. There are many sweet shops with huge shallow pans of milk being boiled down to a thick or even solid consistency, and cauldrons of hot oil for frying. Most nights our hotel serves a different dessert which it buys from a Jodhpur “mithai” shop. Sandy's favorite so far is “lapsi” – a soft porridge-like concoction of cracked wheat, brown sugar, butter and cardamom, eaten with a teaspoon. Lin's favorite is carrot halva, grated carrot cooked with butter, sugar, and nuts. Another is squares of crushed sesame seeds with sugar, cardamom, pistachios and almonds. At the wedding we attended recently, we had gulab jamun – spongy balls of dried milk, deep fried until they are almost black, then soaked in rose-flavoured syrup until they are soggy and dripping with sugary goodness.

Here in Chandelao there are only a couple of cars, but quite a few motor cycles and mopeds. It is rare to see only one person on these vehicles, and if there is room the drivers will usually stop to take hitch hikers. It is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 people on a motor bike, including women in saris sitting side-saddle, and there was a great photo in the local newspaper of a motor bike with 3 passengers – two men and a large monkey all sitting astride.
There are also many tractors, some of which could be in a museum of agricultural history, often carrying 20 or more people in their trailers.
The most used piece of equipment on cars and buses is the horn. When you are overtaking you must blow the horn, otherwise the overtaken vehicle will sit in the middle of the road. Drivers also blow their horns when they see a friend, pass a temple, and to warn the dogs, cows, camel carts or people occupying the roadway. Jodhpur is a constant blare of car, truck and bus horns, so we are glad that we live out in the country.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


A happy group of villagers going to a wedding.
The groom is on the right behind the driver. 

Weddings are a huge event here, and we are now right in the middle of the wedding season. All marriages are arranged between the bride's and the groom's parents. They only occur within families from the same caste, and in Chandelao, marriages never occur within the village. Parents must always find a suitable match from another nearby village. In addition, although dowries are officially illegal, they are still very much a part of the overall negotiations between the two families. We have not attended a whole wedding – they go on for days – but we have seen and heard many bits and pieces.
A few nights ago there was a huge commotion in the street with lots of drums and cymbals. A local lady from the musicians' caste was getting married, and all her female friends and relatives were celebrating before the groom arrived. Each group in turn – children, unmarried women, married women – were dancing while the older men held 10 rupee notes above the best dancer's head. At the end of the dance the money was given to the musicians. It was a wild scene with people jostling, young ladies in their spectacularly colored finery, loud drumming and clanging, older ladies singing, and clouds of dust. This was the start of several days of intermittent partying, fireworks, and singing and dancing at odd hours of the day and night.

The groom arrived on a horse through a hastily built, decorated archway the next day. He looked very serious and hardly cracked a smile. The wedding ceremony itself was very brief and took place at 11:15 pm – a time that the local astrologer had determined to be the most auspicious. We had been invited, but could not keep our eyes open that late. I am sure that we will regret it later. The following day there was more partying, after which the groom took the bride away to his village, where the newly married couple will live with the groom's parents. By this time the groom was looking a lot happier. Now the archway and the party tent have been dismantled, but there is still a lot of singing going on in the house of the bride's parents. Perhaps they are lamenting the loss of their daughter, and the huge expense of getting her married in the proper style.

Birds and Animals
Large male nilgai -- a "blue bull"
We are constantly amazed and delighted by the wonderful bird and animal life here. So far in Chandelao, I have seen 47 species of birds, most of which are new to me, and many of which are spectacular and/or rare. There are many more that I have seen but have been unable to identify. The complete lack of chemicals used in agriculture, the lakes and ponds, and wide variety of vegetation encourages diversity. Most exhilarating are large flocks of elegant cranes soaring overhead, honking gently on their northward migration towards Siberia.
Elegant blackbuck with corkscrew horns
Yesterday, we played hookey in the afternoon, and went on a “jeep safari” from the hotel along dusty tracks to some even more remote villages. Some of the villages are inhabited by Bishnoi people who have been protecting the local animals and plant life for centuries. As a result the animals are quite unafraid of humans. We stopped to take pictures of camels, and large numbers of nilgai, huge antelope that look like a cross between a cow and a horse, with spindly legs and black and white socks. They are supposedly quite dangerous if crossed. More special were the blackbucks, a threatened species that used to be relentlessly hunted for their spectacular black and white skins and their long corkscrew horns.

Rug weaving and pottery
We also watched a rug-maker at work, using a huge loom to weave strong camel-hair carpets that can take from two to six days to complete, depending on the size.
The potter made his work look easy, but even spinning the heavy stone wheel with a stick was a challenge for the brave tourist who tried it, and her clay pot seemed to have a mind of its own and detached itself from the stone before completion.

Elderly Bishnoi pours opium
Elderly Bishnoi gentleman in this part of the world are partial to opium, which has been part of the culture for centuries and is not illegal. They take it in small quantities dissolved in water. The last stop on our jeep safari was at the house of a wizened 82-year-old who demonstrated how the opium is prepared and taken. The whole procedure is ritualized and formal. First a dark red syrup is mixed in a wooden “Aladdin's lamp” with water, then the mixture is poured through a conical cloth filter, then the liquid is poured into the palm of the hand and after a quick offering to one of the gods, is noisily slurped and the hand is then rinsed clean. The darker red the opium solution, the stronger it is. Sandy tried some of the pale yellow stuff – very weak. It had a bitter, distinctly chemical taste, and no palpable effect.

Photography Project
A German lady is currently staying here for three weeks as part of a project she has started to help the village make money through the sale of postcards, a calendar and eventually a book, based on photos that local children have taken. You can find her previous assignment in Zanskar, Ladakh at
One of the "camera kids" photos.
Go to for more information
She arrived equipped with thirteen cameras donated by German people, and has worked with children in Class 8, showing them how to take pictures of their families and activities, like milking a cow/goat, preparing food, playing games...They select the best photos each day, to encourage further creativity, and the results have been really promising. It is refreshing to see the children using cameras, instead of chasing the tourists yelling “poto” and being disappointed that they can not get instant copies when they are snapped.

Hindi Lessons
The hotel and craft-center staff, teachers and school-children all participate in the effort to teach us Hindi words, though we can't always distinguish Hindi from Marwari, and we certainly need constant repetition and practice. Sandy has become adept at reading signs and is less likely to get lost than his language-teacher wife. We now have a wider food-vocabulary, and hope it will serve us well when we are studying menus and conducting basic conversations.
A "classroom" in Lin's school

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chandelao -- Work and Play

Chota, one of the staff, rewinding his turban

So, now we are really getting settled in Chandelao and are both working quite hard on our various projects and activities. We are also getting to know the village and its surroundings.

Lin's Work
I am enjoying teaching at the local private school, though dread to think what the other two local schools must be like in terms of lack of supplies and facilities. The children, all 200 of them, sit on the bare ground, sometimes with a thin strip of fabric under them. The lucky teacher gets a plastic chair, but no desk. A couple of the classes have a chalk-board that has seen better days, and we seem to share a duster to erase it with, adding chalk dust to the clouds of dust that rise whenever the kids get to their feet. Ironically, the kids have to take off their shoes at the gate of the school... to avoid bringing in even more dust? A couple of lucky classes are under cover, but most classes are in the open air, so teaching oral language invariably means disturbing other classes. The six teachers were grateful to receive ball-point pens I had brought from Philadelphia. The kids have a book-bag to keep their books in, but there are no extra books around as far as I can see. Lessons involve a lot of teacher-reading with students answering questions or reciting by heart. Their daily greeting to me is a recital in English in which the word “welcome” recurs comprehensibly and the rest is a jumble of polite formality.
This week I arrived before 9:30 one morning, so was in time to witness the daily assembly at which the kids stand up to cough and splutter their way through the national anthem. Corporal punishment is used presumably as a deterrent...the culprit “assumes the position” by putting his head between his knees, and his hands behind his legs and up over his ears in an admirable if shockingly tortuous display of physical flexibility. He still doesn't escape a beating.

Sandy with the teachers at Lin's School
Otherwise there is a visible enjoyment of learning, and the teachers are thoughtful and cheerful. I am rewarded with a daily Hindi lesson in the school's lunch hour, and spent one session at the teacher's house drinking masala chai, meeting his family and viewing his album of wedding photos. More later on elaborate and expensive weddings which can leave a family in debt for years.

I plan to use my FSD grant money to purchase supplies that will be useful to the teachers and can be passed on to future teachers. I am also going to look into the possibility of providing something like carpet samples for children to sit on.

Sandy's Work
I am working on a couple of projects, one of which is moving along well and the other is going quite slowly. The web sites of the Chandelao Garh and the Sunder Rang ladies' craft center have not been changed for some years and are lacking in much important information. The hotel is ranked #1 on TripAdvisor out of all the hotels in Jodhpur, but is not well known or easy to find. So I am rewriting and redesigning the web site, and making sure that the hotel is listed with full information on other websites such as Frommer, Expedia etc. This is all going along quite well. The Sunder Rang web site is more problematic as it is hosted in Norway, and the user name and password are lost! I hope to get that one sorted out within the next few days.

Rajasthani ladies in their daily dress
I am working on a plan for the greenhouse project, which is much more complicated than I previously thought – that should not be a surprise. The idea is to build a pilot project greenhouse that will extend the vegetable growing season and demonstrate the benefits to local growers. So I am designing compost heap containers using local materials and creating instructions for the “operator”. I am researching low cost green house construction and operation in hot arid regions – I have written to experts in Oman, Nevada and New Mexico for advice. I have also visited the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur to get ideas. I think I will have a good plan together before I leave, but I doubt if we will have got far with construction.
I thought I would get involved with the local school in teaching one science lesson a day to the top class, but having sat in on one lesson – and learnt the names of all the planets in Hindi – I realised that it was not possible to contribute much with my limited knowledge of the local language and the pupils limited knowledge of English. I'll leave the teaching to my much more experienced and effective better half.

Daily Life
We are meeting interesting hotel guests from Britain, Brazil, Germany, and France, which has us practising our foreign languages and focusing less on Hindi as we socialize over meals, take them with us walks, or to the craft center, and show them some of the colorful birds from the rooftop. The hotel staff are friendly and attentive: after a week on our jute-filled mattresses that felt more like concrete especially in the middle of the night, we discovered that the other rooms have foam-rubber mattresses, so ours were replaced on request and we now sleep like newborn babies. We are learning the Hindi names of the dishes we are served, and feel generally privileged to be treated like the other guests. We have even joined in two birthday celebrations last week, one German and one French, with chocolate cake and candles. Today we did our first major clothes-washing, having acquired a plastic bucket, and bought some Tide in Jodhpur, and now have clothes draped around the furniture in our room which consequently smells like a Chinese laundry. Luckily in the bone-dry air they will dry in a few hours.

We can not leave the hotel compound without being surrounded by children, wanting us to take their photo and trying out their English vocabulary on us. Sometimes I feel like the Pied Piper. They mostly seem to have dropped the insistence that I repeat my name, so that they can giggle over its Marwari meaning. Some of them want to hi-five me, but I avoid contact with some of the more heavily dust-encrusted hands. So far we have not had any stomach ailments and aim to keep it that way.

The blue city of Jodhpur from the Mehranghar
Last Sunday, we took the local bus into Jodhpur (40 cents for the 1-hour journey) which was an entertaining experience. Some of Lin's pupils were on the very crowded bus, along with an assortment of turbaned and dhoti-wearing farmers, women in flamboyant Rajasthani costume with clanking bangles up their arms, and children and babies of all ages. Soon everyone in the bus knew who we were and we were grilled on why we were in India, who was paying us, were our children married, how much do they and we earn, why was our 24-year old companion Hannah not married, etc. Questions that would be considered highly intrusive in the US are asked as a matter of course here. We had a very pleasant day walking round Jodhpur, including a visit to the massive, imposing and beautiful Mehranghar – the ancestral home of the Maharajah of Jodhpur and the site of numerous battles, alliances, murders, betrayals, and treaties signed and ignored. It was a truly fascinating place with some wonderful art and beautifully carved pink sandstone.
Our trip back to Chandelao on the last bus was somewhat less enjoyable, if more memorable, than the morning journey. We were packed in like sardines with tired, and sometimes drunk people. There were more passengers up on the roof. Lin was chatted up by a young (-ish) man whose conversation seemed to be leading up to a marriage proposal, but communication fortunately failed before things became uncomfortable. It has to be noted that there was no light on the bus, so wrinkles were not visible and my dress does not denote marital status as is the case for local women, so she appeared to be unescorted.

Lin with some of her pupils by the lake
After work in the evening in Chandelao, the temperature is moderate, the air is clear and dry and the sun is slowly setting. It is a wonderful time for a walk, and we have set off on various farm tracks from the village, meeting elegantly dressed women with heavy water pitchers or bundles of firewood on their heads, goats heading home for the night and many beautiful birds, including large flocks of migrating cranes. The huge red ball of the sun sets behind the trees, and the moon, planets and stars appear brighter and bigger than they ever do in Philadelphia.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

First Impressions of Chandelao

Our Accommodation
The main building of the Chandelao Garh
We are staying in the old fort of the village, the Chandelao Garh. The main building is a handsome stone structure built in the early 18th century by the Thakur of Chandelao, who in the feudal system of the kingdom of Rajasthan was a member of the family of the Maharajah. The central building is beautifully decorated red sandstone in the Mughal style. In the center is a little courtyard surrounded by a colonnade where we have our meals. The main building is surrounded by a large fortified wall, which has the less important structures built against it. We are in a modest-sized long, narrow, white-washed stone room which was once the crockery cupboard – they must have had a lot of crockery. We have two single beds – quite short – fitted with tall t-bars at each end to hold mosquito nets in the wet season. The beds are wooden planks with brick-hard 2-inch horsehair mattresses, and red embroidered covers. We thought they would be uncomfortable, but have quickly got used to them. We have a large private bathroom with shower. The hot water is entirely solar-heated, and it is very hot. We have 4 small windows fitted with wooden shutters and fly-screen, and no glass. Electricity is available but intermittent. It always seems to go out just when you need it and is available when you don't.
Our bedroom, with "firm" beds
The fort has now been converted into a hotel which is ranked #2 out of 77 in Jodhpur on the TripAdvisor web site. We eat in the hotel restaurant, and the food is wonderful. Breakfast is not very Indian, with home-made yogurt, cereal, fruit, juice, eggs, toast, chapatis and tea or coffee. Lunch and dinner are very Indian with rice, chapatis, 2 or 3 vegetable dishes and one meat or chicken dish. It is all self-serve, but the colorfully turbaned wait-staff are there to tell us what the dishes are and to bring us drinks and sweet desserts. We are fast becoming adept at eating with our fingers, and love the interesting flavors and unfamiliar vegetables. Because it is hotel with mostly western guests, the spiciness is often toned down, but there is usually a strong chutney or pickle available on the side. There is an abundance of dairy products available – butter, milk, yogurt and soft cheese – which suits Lin very well. It is easy to be a vegetarian here, but impossible to be a vegan -- everything is cooked in butter.
Praduman Singh
Our Host
Praduman Singh, a direct descendant of the Thakurs of Chandelao, came back to live here in 1996. His family had left the village after their land was mostly confiscated during the land reforms of the 1970s. He is also in charge of the Chandelao Vikas Sansthan (Development Organization) and hence the supervisor of our activities here. He is an interesting and dynamic individual who is devoted to improving the village and the lives of the locals. He is quite adept at raising money from international foundations, and with their help has restored the old fort and converted it into a hotel, developed a craft center for employment of village women (they traditionally have no sources of income), and has built water collection and storage structures. He seems quite happy for us to do what we like as long as it is overall reasonably helpful. He speaks excellent English as well as Marwari and Hindi, and is very good at charming the hotel guests. He looks equally at home in jeans and t-shirt or white dhoti, tunic and orange, red and yellow turban.
The Village
Collecting water at the lake
The village has about 1,800 inhabitants who belong to different castes. The predominant language is Marwari, which is related to Hindi but the two languages are more or less mutually unintelligible. The village has three schools, a store, a tailor's, a mobile phone store and four Hindu temples. A qualified nurse runs the store and a clinic at the back of the same building, from which he dispenses medicine and medical advice. Most people don't have running water in their home...we are lucky! We also have a filter on the kitchen tap where we can fill our bottles with drinking water...they carry large metal pots on their heads (no hands) and fill them at the two wells near the lake, one for the higher- and one for the lower-caste villagers. There is an infrequent bus service to Jodhpur, and drivers compete with cows, tractors, goats and pukpuks (highly decorated covered tricycles with a noisy lawnmower engine you start with a string). If something is blocking your way you sound your horn and drive on the wrong side of the road. Larger vehicles are given priority, but indicators can mean either you are pulling out or telling another driver to pass you, so the resulting confusion is never your fault.
The craft center is a tourist attraction where women work for an hourly rate with commission on individual items. They sew beaded, buttoned and sequined bags, shirts, cushion covers, scarves, shawls, necklaces and mats. Some sew garments on machines...non-electric and treadle-operated, of course...and others chain-stitch designs of peacocks and elephants with gold metal thread and colored yarns. Their work is displayed for sale in thatch-roofed, stone circular buildings. When a woman marries, she invariably leaves this village to go and live with her husband's family in a nearby village, so the skilled younger workers often need to be replaced. Some of the mothers bring their babies or pre-school kids to work with them, so there is a friendly family atmosphere in the center, though the manager, currently a young intern from Texas, can get frustrated at the slow pace of work. They have taught Lin how to do the chain-stitching (called ari tari), and are charmingly complimentary about her clumsy efforts.
Making chapatis in the hotel kitchen
So far this week she has been invited to a cup of chai at the tailor's house and the home of one of the ari tari workers, where she is asked to take their photos, and records their names, which they write in Hindi and she transcribes in English. Now she has started teaching at the local private school she is becoming well-known in the village, the “freak of the week”, and is followed by children trying out English words and asking her to take their photo. At first they giggled and kept asking her name, until the constant repetition triggered the realization that Linda sounds like a Marwari word we later learned means “poop”.
Weather and Environment
This region of Rajasthan is dry, semi-desert. The temperatures at present are between 75 F during the day and 50 F at night, though it feels much colder because of the low humidity. We usually don't take off our thick sweaters until lunch time. In the summer – May, June, July – temperatures regularly go up to 120 F. August and September are the only months with rain, when they get about 10 inches during the monsoon. The rest of the year it is dry. The locals are adept at dealing with these harsh conditions. The cows manage to live on tough desert grasses, and there are plenty of goats. There are tanks for collecting water, and a couple of large artificial lakes have been dug. Unfortunately, they are quite low at present as the past two monsoons were below average. If local water runs too low they can get more from a branch of the Indira Gandhi canal which brings water to this region from the Himalayan foothills. Because of the dry climate, the local vegetation is rather sparse, but dominated by invasive mesquite, which is a real spiky hazard when walking around the village. Mesquite spikes easily go through the sole of the average shoe – we have taken to wearing our thickest and strongest shoes. There are of course many cows, and the evidence of cows on the village streets – another hazard of walking in unsuitable shoes. The cowpats are dried and used as fuel for open fires, or smoothed onto floors and walls as a surprisingly odorless coating. There are many beautiful and colorful birds, parrots, bee-eaters, rollers, kingfishers, bulbuls and mynah birds – and wild peacocks are everywhere.
Enough about this lovely and interesting place....we'll write about what we are actually doing here in our next installment.
Please email if you have any questions or comments
Lin and Sandy