The Bhopal Gas Disaster did not Happen…


…it is Still Happening.

Many people know about the Bhopal Gas Disaster, but most people don’t know that it is an ongoing disaster impacting people today, 27 years later, in varied and profound ways.


On December 3rd 1984, at 10 minutes past midnight, a Union Carbide pesticide plant, operating under extensive cost-cutting measures with sub-par safety facilities, leaked over 27 tons of methyl-isocyanate—a deadly gas—into the air. The gas released was carried by winds into the heavily populated slum neighborhoods surrounding one side of the factory, affecting some of Bhopal’s most impoverished people.


 

Over half a million Bhopalis were exposed to this gas that night and 20,000 people died in the immediate aftermath as a result of their exposure, with many more dying each year from gas-related illnesses.

The continuing disaster or “second disaster” as many people call it, refers to the ongoing contamination and poisoning of 16 basti (slum) communities’ water systems, as well as the perpetual inability of the Indian government and judicial system to secure adequate compensation to gas and water victims. The abandoned Union Carbide pesticide factory still stands in Bhopal today—a looming reminder of “that night”—rusting and decomposing, while bottles of highly toxic chemicals collect cobwebs and dust, and pose a very real threat to the thousands who live nearby.

 

Victims of the gas exposure and water contamination have been left to cope with lifelong chronic and debilitating health repercussions. Over the past 27 years, an estimated 150,000 survivors of Union Carbide’s poisons and their children have been suffering from a multitude of health problems.


In the immediate aftermath of the disaster thousands of gas-exposed Bhopalis had poisons circulating in their bloodstream causing differing degrees of damage to almost all systems in the body. Health issues include, but are not limited to, respiratory problems, diminished vision, muscle weakness, higher incidents of cancers and tuberculosis, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the testing of local ground and well-water systems in communities located near the abandoned Union Carbide Factory revealed poisons such as mercury and lead between 20,000 and 6 million times what is acceptable. Cancer causing as well as birth defect causing chemicals are still found in this water.

 

As an added dimension, the chemicals present in the gas people were exposed to in 1984, as well as those toxins present in local communities’ drinking water are particularly and disproportionately damaging to women’s health; these health problems have serious social consequences. Health issues include gynecological and endocrinal complications, as well as high levels of abnormal menstrual and reproductive difficulties as well as higher incidence of miscarriages. The children of gas and water affected women also suffer from a vast array of congenital deformities, and mental and physical disabilities.

 

In the particular context of impoverished and religiously conservative Indian communities, reproductive difficulties and chronic illnesses render many women undesirable marriage partners, causing them to bear significant social stigma. Indeed, the inability to conceive healthy children sentences many women to live without ever getting married, which can lead to an inability to ever attain economic security.


In a situation where an overwhelming proportion of people are suffering from such numerous health problems, effective and sustainable medical care and treatment as well as economic rehabilitation for those rendered immobile and unemployed are necessary. However, in response to the multiple medical problems suffered by the thousands of gas and water affected Bhopalis, government health programs and hospitals has proven ineffective and negligent in providing Bhopal’s victims with sufficient medical and economic rehabilitation.

Government-led methods of health care that have prevailed in Bhopal since the gas leak have been largely directed towards providing symptomatic relief without having any effect on the chronic disease process. Initial government management of the crisis was neither organized nor thorough, and to this day, accurate documentation of victims’ experiences and subsequent health and economic problems has not been carried out.

Union Carbide Corporation’s victims and Bhopal’s most impoverished people have been left to deal with these problems all on their own.

But there is no pity in Bhopal; only persistence, possibility, and power.

 


 

Out of this context, marked by government neglect and corporate exploitation, a movement of community-based activism has flourished. This movement is united under a common goal: the victims’ fundamental right to lead healthy and productive lives.

Over the past 5 years I have returned to Bhopal several times as a volunteer, a researcher and a supporter. What I found was a strong community that is resilient and passionate and will stop at nothing to get justice for themselves and their children. This campaign for justice in Bhopal not only advocates for Bhopali victims’ rights and compensation, but also creates awareness of environmental issues and corporate injustices affecting communities all over the globe.

My first introduction to Bhopal’s groundbreaking community-based activism came in 2007 when I came to live and work as a volunteer, working to develop and implement an activities program for children from the nearby slum communities at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic,. The creation of the clinic was one of the first major projects initiated by the Bhopal Medical Appeal with the goals of community health and empowerment:

“It is possible to develop safe, simple, and effective ways to treat the people exposed to Union Carbide’s poisons, and it is possible to inspire a community to take control and improve its health, possible to do meaningful research with meager financial and human resources, possible to bring about change in the government’s neglectful attitude towards the victims.”(Ten Years of Possibilities)

The Sambhavna Trust Clinic provides free medical care to the victims of the gas disaster and subsequent water contamination. Currently the clinic treats thousands of Bhopalis and employs over 30 staff members, half who are themselves gas survivors. At the clinic, patients are offered free medical care through allopathy (“western” medical methods) Ayurveda (indigenous Indian methods of treatment using herbal medicines) and yoga.


Staff members include physicians, gynecologists, yoga therapists, ayurvedic therapists as well as community health workers who carry out health surveys, health education, and community organization for better overall health. The clinic library also happens to be the worlds’ largest documentation center on the disaster. Offering patients care through yoga and herbal medicine decreases the dependency of the patient on the clinic and provides alternative medical treatment solutions that are holistic and sustainable.

The movement’s focus on community health also places a significant emphasis on the relationship between women’s health and social conditions. This special attention has had many positive effects on Bhopali women living in gas-affected and water affected communities. In the past, social taboos and shame have discouraged many women from seeking medical treatment for gynecological health problems. Community health work at Sambhavna has worked to overcome these issues.

The Bhopal Medical Appeal movement and the Sambhavna Trust Clinic’s particular focus on community and social conditions has had the power to provide community members with agency and individual ownership with respect to their personal health. Additionally, this movement led by  community members and gas victims themselves has had the ability to provide sustainable health care that is culturally sensitive and speaks to the particular needs of Bhopali women.


It was during that same summer, researching a paper for the Women’s Studies Department at McGill University, when I first became familiar with the powerful women’s activist movement in Bhopal. This movement is spearheaded by two impassioned and inspirational women Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla. As gas victims themselves, these women, both married at an extremely young age and living in poverty, Rashida Bee and Champadevi (both illiterate and at that time uneducated) were impacted by not only the health repercussions of the gas disaster but the economic consequences as well—experiencing the increased financial liabilities that came with their illnesses and that of their families.

In 1985, in an attempt to address the overwhelming economic impacts of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster, the government set up approximately 50 training/production centers in different localities throughout Bhopal to provide gas-affected women with training in trades such as sewing and stationary manufacture.  Thousands of Bhopali women were employed at these sewing and stationary centers in the hopes of improving their economic situations, as many of them were widowed by the tragedy or had husbands incapacitated by the gas. But within four years the government abruptly closed down all but two of the centers, without notice or consultation with the female employees.

That is when Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla along with hundreds of other gas affected women mobilized to form the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan the Bhopal Gas Affected Working Women’s Union. The union was initially formed to protest against the closure of one such government-sponsored sewing center and over time, the union went on to become one of the largest organizations of gas victims and one to regularly articulate victims demands through various forms of public protests, press coverage and litigation.


Participation in activism for Bhopali women has transformed their lives in multiple ways, inspiring them to seek social changes in other aspects of their lives. Many of these women emerged from lives of seclusion and isolation to implicate themselves in protests and other justice-seeking activities. Furthermore, the unified efforts of Rashida Bee (a Muslim) and Champadevi Shukla (a Hindu) have encouraged integration and amicable relations in otherwise religiously divided communities.

Since the late 1980s the activist movement in Bhopal has tackled issues of advocacy and justice for gas and water contamination victims, corporate crime and environmental destruction. The people of Bhopal continue to struggle and fight to ensure that what happened in Bhopal does not happen anywhere else in the world.

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I have just spent the past few months in Bhopal, and as always, the visit has had an enormous impact on me. I lived at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic again and got involved in several different projects in some of the gas and water affected communities.

One of my projects involved work at a school in the Oriya Basti community—a neighborhood affected by persistent water contamination caused by the chemicals found at the abandoned Union Carbide factory premises. The neighborhood is very small, very poor, and surrounded by many other impovrished communities. What sets this community aside from the others around it is the ethnic composition of it’s people. The people from Oriya Basti are from the Eastern Indian state of Orissa and they have a different culture, language and appearance to them.

In the 1980s increasing employment opportunities enticed many people from Orissa to move to, and eventually settle in Old Bhopal, extremely close to the Union Carbide Factory. This neighborhood was prominently featured in the book entitled “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal” by  French doctor and writer Dominic Lapierre, A captivating fiction-style story about the true accounts leading up to and during the Bhopal Gas Disaster. Dominique Lapierre is responsible for funding the gynecological equipment that is at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, and he also helped  set up a small school in the Oriya Basti.




The school has a modest fenced-in yard behind it and this past summer another Canadian volunteer worked with the students to plant a small ayurvedic plant garden and educated them on the different health benefits of these plants. The students planted hibiscus, tulsi, aloe, henna and several other commonly used plants with the intention of them eventually learning to use these plants for healing within their own families and communities.

When I arrived in September the garden had become neglected and overgrown with weeds. I spent several weeks working with the students and local community volunteers (led by Sambhavna community health workers) to revive the garden and to teach them about caring for plants, the same way we would care for babies and animals. The students impressed me with their knowledge of the herbal medicine plants they were caring for. Eventually the goal is for them become mini community health workers themselves, diagnosing the health conditions of their community members and prescribing  medicine from their own gardens.




I spent most of my time while in Bhopal working at the Chingari Trust and Rehabilitation Center. I first got to know this organization during my visits to Bhopal in 2007 and 2008, but I was blown away this time by its impressive expansive and growing impacts on the local community.  The Chingari Trust was started in 2004 when Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla were recognized for their activism on behalf of the thousands of survivors of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster and won the Goldman Environmental Award.

The women used the money from the award and started a trust that has several main functions: to extend economic and livelihood support programs to gas-affected women and their families, to take up initiatives that help protect and support the rights of victims of the Gas Disaster, particularly women and children, and to promote the Chingari Award, which recognizes women activists in other parts of India who are fighting against corporate crime and environmental destruction.

One of the major functions of the Chingari Trust is the work committed to supporting the families of the many children in Bhopal born today with various mental and physical disabilities.


These disabilities are a result of the Union Carbide poisons that have been passed down to them (as third generation survivors) through their parents’ bloodstreams—because the MIC gas leaked from the factory in December 1984 never neutralized in their bodies and are continuing to affect people to this day. Similarly, their disabilities are due to the contamination of their only water sources by the toxins and chemicals that are still present in the abandoned Union Carbide factory. Each year the monsoon washes these chemicals into the ground, leaching into the aquifers and boreholes that feed local water pumps.

For years, the Chingari Trust was operating a rehabilitation and special education center out of a very small building in Bhopal, with an office, and only a few other rooms which would be packed each day with mothers and their children, hoping to receive therapy and counseling for themselves and the children. Presently there are about 300 children registered with the Chingari and about 120 of them come each day. Most children come with their mothers but there are a few who come on their own.

Chingari has 3 vans and their drivers drive out to the basti communities every morning to pick them up and bring them to the center.




Just recently the Chingari Trust was able to move into the ground floor of a much larger building on a main road in one of Bhopal’s gas affected neighborhoods.  The new location has several rooms: an office, a small kitchen, a physiotherapy room, an occupational therapy room, a speech therapy room, and a special education room. Additionally, there is a long corridor where the children can play sports.





It’s a really wonderful place to be. The children, although suffering from a myriad of disabilities and health conditions, are really in their element. They are supported, stimulated, and encouraged—all of this makes them happy and leaves them feeling “normal”, an experience they do not always encounter at home and in their neighborhoods.

Almost all of these children come from families that are impoverished and one can only imagine how poverty can compound their existing health problems. This is why the free care and therapy provided at the Chingari Rehabilitation Center is so crucial.

The staff at Chingari are incredibly warm and are very skilled doctors and therapists who every day take on the challenging task of working with these children. Not only do they work with the children, but they also counsel and instruct their mothers on how to best care for and stimulate their children when they are back home.


Working with the Chingari Trust has been incredibly rewarding. I have spent the last 3 years working full time at a cegep in Montreal where I gave regular presentations about the work being done in Bhopal by women activists like Rashida Bee and Champa Devi and it was an honor to see them each day—in action—and show them in person how committed I am to their cause. I spent my time working with Tabish Ali, the Public Relations officer, and his commitment and dedication to his work at Chingari is astounding.  Tabish and I worked together as I trained him in grant seeking and in writing funding proposals and we worked to create a new website for the organization. I also spent time in the different therapy rooms, observing the valuable work of the different therapists and doing activities with the children who are so vibrant and enjoyable to spend time with.

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In Bhopal, community participation is not only vital but necessary, and this is apparent in the many different organizations and projects that have evolved out of the tragedy of the Gas Disaster.

I have observed and have had the privilege of working with a community of victims who do not regard themselves in this way. They view themselves as powerful agents for change in a world where too often the poor are neglected and exploited. Their vision is that of community health education and empowerment in the face of greed and outright human rights abuse perpetrated by governments and corporations.

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To learn more about the Bhopal Gas Disaster and ongoing projects supporting survivors of the gas and water contamination, please visit www.bhopal.org and please make a donation! 
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Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Right Before my Eyes, Jai Shree Makes Masala Dosa! (and now you can too!)

As a special request, for one of my last days at Sambhavna, I asked Jai Shree, the volunteer cook, to make me some Masala Dosas for lunch!

Here is a step by step guide to how she made the dosa batter, the spicy masala potato filling, and an incredible tomato chilli chutney for dipping. (Full recipe at the very bottom)

The process began last night when Jai Shree prepared one cup of plain white rice and one cup of yellow daal each in a bowl of water to soak overnight.

And the first thing she did today was pour the rice into a standard blender, with a little bit of the water, and blend it up.

After blending the rice, she then added the soaked yellow daal and blended it all together until it looked like a typical pancake batter.

Jai Shree put the batter out in the sun to “make full” (I’m assuming to thicken) and Jimy was responsible for watching it to make sure galeris (Indian chipmunks) didn’t help themselves.

Meanwhile, Jaishree sets to work making the chutney.

She uses about a handful of peanuts, 2 small tomatoes, 6 long green chillies and 6 cloves of garlic and sautees everything with cumin seeds and a bit of salt in oil.

Once everything got nice and soft, she blended it….

And after what was literally only a few minutes, we had the most amazingly delicious chutney I’ve ever tasted…my god!

After she had blended up the chutney Jai Shree set to work making the spicy masala potato filling. This consisted of adding 6 pre-boiled and peeled potatoes to a sizzling mixture of chopped green chillies, one small onion, mustard and cumin seeds, tumeric, chilli powder (clearly, you can never have enough chilli) a bit of fresh corriander and salt…

…and then mashing it all up!

Now it’s time to start making the dosas! First Jai Shree added some salt and pepper to the dosa batter…

Then, she prepared two cups, one of oil and one of salted water. She showed me this neat technique where she dipped a halved onion into the oil, and used the onion to spread the oil on to the frying pan. This helped the oil to evenly distribute throughout the frying pan, and smelled like bloody heaven…after the oil she splashed a bit of salt water on to the pan and began ladling the batter on, like a crepe or pancake…

At this point, Jimy and I started to get very hungry!

AND NOW: DOSA TIME!

Once it started to get thick and fluffy….

She flipped it over!

Then she added the  masala potato filling, and folded it up!

PERFECTION:

Food review by Jimy:

_____________

JAI SHREE’S DELICIOUS DOSA RECIPE 

Tomato Chutney:

2 small tomatoes
Large handful of peanuts
several green chillies (depending on how spicy you want it to be)
About 6 cloves of garlic
Salt
Cumin seeds

Sautee all ingredients in oil until everything becomes soft and fragrant. Remove from stove and transfer to blender, blend and BEHOLD!

Masala Filling:

6 potatoes
Several green chillies
1 onion
Mustard seeds
Cumin seeds
Tumeric powder
Chilli powder

Boil (or cook in pressure cooker) and peel 6 small to medium sized potatoes. Sautee in pan chopped green chillies, mustard and cumin seeds, and one small onion, chopped. Add tumeric, chilli powder and salt. Add potatoes, mix and mash! Toss in a few shredded coriander leaves and mix in.

Dosa Batter:

1 cup rice (soaked overnight)
1 cup yellow lentils (soaked overnight)

Blend rice with a bit of water in blender, once blended add lentils and blend all together until batter is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat frying pan, add some oil, and some salted water, ladle dosa batter on to pan and spread thin. Wait for the dosa to thicken and get fluffy (about a minute or two) but make sure it doesn’t burn. Flip over for a few seconds, add masala potato filling, fold and voila!

Pretty simple eh?

 

For more delicious recipes and more of Jaishree’s wisdom, check out my cooking blog! 

http://whatwouldjaishreedo.wordpress.com/

 

 

Posted in Food, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My Walk to Work: A “Google Street View” Tour

My daily walk from the Sambhavna Trust Clinic to the Chingari Rehabilitation Center each day is never boring. It’s only about 10 minutes away, but some days, those 10 minutes feel like an eternity. The heat, the pollution, the noise, the harassment is sometimes too much for me. But over the past couple months I have come to embrace this walk, and enjoy it, because in a few days I will go back to a place where no one so much as gives me a sideways glance (god I can’t wait!).

Just imagine, the next time you walk to work, (from your home, or from the bus or metro stop) what it would be like if every single person you walked past wanted to interact with you. Now imagine what that would be like in a place where people (and especially children) are so unbelievably abundant. Mostly, people ask me the same things day in and day out and the main thing they want to know is, where the eff am I going?

Children, Didi! kaha ja rahe ho!?”  to which I respond “Kam, (work) Chingari Trust mein hai.” or “Khanaa kileya” (to eat) or my favorite, “Goomnay” (which I believe is a Hindi word that roughly translates to “wandering aimlessly”)

Men, “Miss! Where are you going?!” to which I respond, “Please, as if it’s even remotely any of your business.”

I get a lot of “Aap ka naam kya hai?” (what is your name?) “Aap kai sai hai?” (how are you?) and my favorite, “Shaadi ho gayaa?” (are you married?).

Come on! Creativity people!

Pleasantly, a lot of people around here do know my name. (Well not my real name, they either call me Malini Didi or Melina Didi) And I never tire of hearing some little kid shout it out to me as I pass by, “Hi, Malina Didi!” It feels a bit different, though, when the teenage boys and older men say it.

You’d think people would be used to me by now, that my daily appearance would become less and less interesting to the average Bhopali as I walk past them each day, looking awkward in my Salwar Kameeze suits, carrying my laptop, and a couple liters of bottled water in my  stylish American Eagle postman bag.  But no, I continue to be the talk of the town.

Some days I hate it but some days I get a real kick out of it.

The first half of my walk consists of sauntering through Qazi Camp, the neighborhood where Sambhavna is located and a very familiar one to me at that. The second half is a bit more precarious as I approach Berasia Road , now officially re-named “Harassia” road, [credit to Alex Masi for that one, and I’m extremely jealous that I hadn’t come up with that delightful nickname myself. Extremely jealous.] a main street in Old Bhopal constantly packed with cars, trucks, autos-rickshaws, busses, vans, motorcycles, bicycles, cows, dogs, goats, people and sometimes me. Sounds a bit rough? It is. And by the time I finally reach Chingari I usually need a good 10 minutes to regroup, breathe, and then I get to work.

And now, for some visuals:

The first house I always pass, and voluntarily offer my friendliness and chatting, is the home of “my kids” since 2007 who I love with all my heart, particularly Shivani, Anjali, Harsheeta and their family, Sumit and Amit and the 2 Vishals. I know them all well, and we love each other and I’m almost never annoyed by any of them.

Ragni, Anjali and Harsheeta

Sometimes, however, they don't want to chat with me, Ankita here isn't into it.

Walking down the road I pass some of my other neighbours, and some dogs, exhausted and recovering from their vicious non-stop rabid nightly dog fights.

At the end of the street, that's Sambhavna on the left behind the fence, Shivani and some unknown boy chasing after me.

Little Visha's niece

Then I reach the corner shop. That I hit up daily for a bottle of water, a bag of chips and a sprite/fanta/coke/limeca depending on my mood.

Those bags of chips are impossible to detach

Rounding the corner I start to pass all the goats in the neighborhood…

Little do these goats know...In a few days they'll all be slaughtered for this week's Muslim holiday, Eid-al-Adha, also known as "The Feast of Sacrifice"!

Past the ginger and onion vendor, and some customers…

Lady in the blue gave me a friendly smack on the back after I took this one....at least I think it was friendly...

Past some young admirers….

Look behind me, surprise surprise, some little kiddies are following…

Didi! Didi!

"Didi ek photo!" I was like, "Get a comb!" (just kidding)

Pass by one of many garbage heaps…freshly burned this one…

Turn the corner once again, and continue on my way…

Not much happening on this block, and then I make a left and I’m slowly moving on my way out of Qazi Camp….

Oh, there’s another pile of trash…

Walk past the fetid stinking streams of black water…

When it starts to bubble you know its ready!

Oh hey! There’s Samir,  one of my auto-rickshaw drivers, with his baby!

Pass some banana vendors and more goats of course…

"Didi ek photo!"

Pass by the 12 year old kid who apparently runs his own garage?

"like a boss"

Coming up to the end of the road, and about to make a right turn on to “Harassia Road”, not long to go now!

This is when the walk gets a bit more challenging…

The two men on the motorcycle stopped me after I snapped this one and asked for a pic. I didn't give in.

But first, I’ll sometimes stop for a chat with my auto guys!

Mohammed is one of the only men in Bhopal who no longer asks me where I'm going when I walk to Chingari every day. Unlike everyone else in this city, he is able to identify a pattern.

Every day I trust one of these guys (or Samir) with my life…

Shafiq (in the orange) and Mohammed are my favorites. But the tallest guy and I don't get a long AT ALL. Go moustaches!

Once I get to Harassia, I say goodbye to the last couple kids who follow me all the way up to the end of the slum….

And forge ahead!

Some more greetings along the road, some of which a bit less well-intentioned…

Chai anyone?

After a few more paces, I’ve finally reached Chingari!

Posted in Frustrations, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Misunderstanding Ho Gayaa: Mel and Val Conquer Amritsar and Shimla

Last week I took a mini vacation from Bhopal with an even more Opinionated Traveler than myself: my cousin Val.

We met up in Delhi after she had flown into India from London and we spent the day eating and shopping (this would become a big theme for our week). Later that evening we caught a flight out of Delhi airport to Amritsar, Punjab province, and were greeted by more turbans than we’d ever seen in one place at one time. Among the many things we found enjoyable and charming about the turbans was the fact that it was a pleasant change to observe a strict dress-code enforced on men, rather than women for a change.

Turban Mania! At the Golden Temple shoe deposit

We arrived quite late at night to our insanely luxurious and opulent hotel Ista where I basked in the glory of a hot shower, a duvet, and the ability to recline for the first time in 9 weeks. That night, we ordered room service and discussed the utter incomparable amazingness of eating incredible Indian food, in India, in the comfort of our own beautiful room, wearing cozy robes, and of course, watching BBC World Service. (Anyone who travels to foreign countries knows the comfort of that BBC “boop, boop, boop” news theme music, often the only English channel one can find.)

Bhopal felt very far away

Indulgent

We spent the next day visiting the Golden Temple, (where we were made to take off our shoes and walk barefoot–IN INDIA–from the shoe deposit station to the Temple entrance. My worst nightmare). We were asked to pose for several photos with Indian families and gladly agreed, making everyone quite happy. After we ate a delicious and filling lunch.

I cringed with each step

Some channa masala, paneer tika, rice and naan of course

And then we spent the rest of the day relaxing back at the beautiful Hotel Ista swimming pool, being waited on hand and foot by Vurindar, the pool boy/luckiest bloke employed in India (he basically chills with white girls in bikinis all day every day–although, I think he might be gay).

The glorious pool at Hotel Ista

That night we contacted Holiday India our “Travel Agency” who had arranged to have our bus tickets sent to our hotel to facilitate the next part of our trip.

Here is the justification for using an Indian travel agency in the first place, so you do not judge us too harshly: Val has been to India before, back in 2007 she did 2 months of hardcore solo backpacking and experienced what all visitors to India experience, excessive stress and hassles due to transport delays and mix ups. The theory was, if Val wanted to maximize every minute of this one week trip, risking any travel delays or mix ups would be far from ideal. The solution was to work with a travel agency (that she found on google) during the months leading up to this trip, to ensure that all of our transportation to and from Shimla was pre-booked and organized. Especially during Diwali time where travel can be very crowded and over booked.

Although this theory would be strongly tested over the next few days, we decided to go for it and put all of our trust in Minerva and Ravindar, the trusty employees of the Holiday India Travel Agency. [Note, we paid in advance for everything so Holiday India already had all of our money] By booking through a travel agency,  the idea would be that one would AVOID hassle and complications, right? WONG.

Minor Fuck-Up

The next morning we were booked on a 5:45am bus to Chandigarh, a town about halfway up north to Shimla. We left our hotel very early in the morning and took a mini cab to the bus station. We were taking a bus right? We asked to go to the bus station. Seems like the reasonable thing to do right? WRONG.

After arriving at the bus station, finding the sign that said Chandigarh, we settled in for some early morning chai and chit-chat with numerous curious Indian men. At about 5:30 we wandered over to the luxurious looking bus parked under the Chandigarh sign and showed some other men our pre-arranged bus ticket on the “Maharaja Tours” bus line.

Chandigarh Central Bus Stand

It was then that this large group of helpful men informed us that the busses for Maharaja Tours did not leave from the Amritsar Bus Stand and that we needed to go somewhere called “Alde Gate”  (?) Still not exactly sure what they were saying. They told us to get into an auto FAST and get to Alde Gate before our bus left (in approximately 10 minutes).

Fuck.

So we get in an auto and ask him to move as JALDI (fast) as possible to what ended up being some side of the road where 3 busses were parked. We immediately located the bus labeled “Chandigarh” and got on with only minutes to spare. Hmmm, Holiday India, this seems like a crucial detail you might want to let your foreigners know when booking bus tickets for them. Your luxury private company AC bus doesn’t leave from the government Amritsar bus stand, it leaves from the side of the road elsewhere in Amritsar. It was a close call, but as Val said, it wouldn’t be a trip to India without at least one close call. So we chalked it up to cute fun Indianism and settled in for a long long bus ride to Chandigarh on a relatively comfortable (on paper, luxury) bus.

Major Fuck-Up

The night before, when our bus tickets to Chandigarh were delivered to our hotel, Val was a bit concerned to notice that our tickets to Shimla were not included with this package. So we called Ravindar and asked where our pre-booked tickets to Shimla were. He told us not to worry (something that would become their FAVORITE THING TO SAY TO US) and that when we arrived in CHANDIGARH someone there from the bus company would find us and get us on the bus to Shimla. We really couldn’t do anything about this situation other than to trust Ravindar and hope for the best.

So back to the bus, about an hour before arrival I have to pee so bad that I feel like I’m going to pass out. So I start pacing up and down the aisle and notice that the bus is slowing down and pulls over on the side of the road, stops, and a few people get off the bus. I poke my head out of the bus to survey the area to see if anywhere close by looks appropriate for me to pee when a man comes up to me and says “Shimla?” “…yes” I say hesitantly, and he gives me the head wobble and starts taking our bags out from under the bus.

But this isn’t Chandigarh, and we were given specific instructions to get off the bus in Chandigarh where we’d be lead to our bus to Shimla. I turn around to the other passengers on the bus and just to confirm, ask them “Is this Chandigarh?” “No miss, we will reach Chandigarh in another 15 minutes.” So I don’t know where the hell we are, and I assume this man is just some hustler trying to get white people on to his bus.

After a quick mid-bus consult with val, we unanimously agree that since the ONLY information we had been given was to disembark the bus in Chandigarh, and this was not Chandigarh, that we should stay on the bus and not go with this dodgy looking dude, who didn’t seem too keen to fight for us anyway.

A few minutes later we arrived in Chandigarh, but since by now we had established that private bus company busses did not go to the city’s central bus stand, we were not surprised to find ourselves, yet again, on the side of the road. We get off the bus, with our bags and I start to investigate, in Hindi, about what we needed to do. Our bus driver looked gutted when he realized that actually, we probably should have gone with that dodgy looking man, and told us to get ourselves to the central bus stand. We found an auto driver to take us there, and since we knew we had about an hour to get our bus up to Shimla we were annoyed, but not panicked.

When we got to the bus stand we noticed a lot of busses, a lot of people, and not a lot of clarity. First thing’s first. I peed. Best 3 rupees I ever spent. And then we called Holiday India. Minerva answers. Val, at this point, is pretty pissed and really let Minerva have it. Minerva, must have told Val “not to worry” about 40 times but wasn’t really able to give us any more information than that. She told us she’d call us back. Nice way of avoiding confronting your fuck up Minerva. We realize that there are probably plenty of busses to Shimla departing from the bus stand and if we’re lucky, we’ll get on one, and just deal with the fact that we’ve lost a bit of money by indadvertedly missing our private bus to the same location.

ENTER SURINDAR:

After a few minutes of looking confused and exasperated, we’re approached by a wildly handsome man in a uniform, who informs us that he is a Chandigarh Tourist Police officer. Without hesitation I call Minerva and put him on the phone with her. Surindar puts on his most serious voice and after conversing for a few minutes he hangs up and ushers us to some seats, where we’re joined by an equally cute co-worker of his in a matching uniform. In between cups of chai, they both lecture us on the dangers of working with travel agencies and remind us (about 3000 times) that as Chandigarh Tourist Police, it is their national duty to help and protect us and that everything will be okay.

Surindar is phoned by about 6 members of the Holiday India team and tells me and Val “misunderstanding ho gayaa” (there was a misunderstanding). No shit. That side of the road stop, where I was greeted by the dodgy dude asking if I was headed to Shimla, was a town called Mohali, and in fact, we were supposed to get out there and go with that fellow.

“Right,” says Val, “But we were told to get out at Chandigarh, and up until 2 minutes ago, I didn’t even know a place named Mohali exists.”

Surindar shakes his head solemnly and assures us that in his flurry of phone calls, he’s arranged for someone from the private bus company to meet us at the bus station REFUND us the cost of our bus tickets, and then he would get us on the next government bus departing for Chingari from the central bus stand. Bullshit, we’re thinking. There’s no way on earth that someone will actually show up to reimburse our bus fare.

After some time passes, Val is so confident that no one would show up that she makes a 50 rupee bet with Surindar. His confidence was unshaken. Over the next hour we had some delicious bus station samosas, and learned more about Surindar and his life. 21, a wife and baby, and a proud proud Chindigarh Tourist Police officer (as he reminded us about every 4 minutes). His mate/coworker (who spoke a bit less English) also chatted with me in Hindi and English and had no problem reminding me SEVERAL times what a mistake it was for us to associate with any Indian travel agency. Okay, yeah, we get it.

About 8 minutes before the government bus to Chandigarh departs, Val and I are utterly shocked to observe a sketchy looking man (followed by an equally sketchy looking entourage) approach Surindar and present us with Rs 660. That’s  Rs 330 each–exactly enough for us to pay for our tickets on the next bus. We were in disbelief. Val, of course, whips out 50 rupees to give Surindar for winning the bet, but naturally, he refused, proclaiming:

“Your satisfaction is my gift.” 

What a star. What a mensch.

We got on the almost entirely packed bus, and after bidding goodbye to Surindar and his mate (feel bad I never got his name, or maybe I did and forgot) we were off to Shimla!

I’d like to say that the bus ride to Shimla was uneventful, but it wasn’t. The distance from Chandigarh to Shimla is only 120 km. But because the journey involves no direct highway, and snakes through the foothills of the Himalayas, it takes over 4 hours. And after our first stop for food and bathrooms, I was a bit disconcerted when I was presented with a sick bag. “Uh…” says Val, “I guess a lot of people get sick on this bus?”.

Eventually 3 nice but overly curious men start conversation with Val and I at the back of the bus and at first we had no problem chit chatting with them, mostly about how much we love their country, and how much they love that we love their country, and of course, they wanted to hear about all the Indian food that we love.

Now if you know me, you know I love to talk about food. If you know Val, you’d know that she’s one of the only people who likes to talk about food more than me. But as the altitude grew higher, the roads grew more dangerous, and the real possibility of death was increasing, I (not normally prone to motion or altitude sickness) began to reach for my sick bag.

Feeling a big queasy. So was Val but she faked a smile for this pic.

Val, “Uh, are you going to throw up?”
Me, “No, but if he doesn’t stop talking about mutton I just might”

After nearly reaching my wits end, I had to bite the bullet, risk being rude, and tried as nicely as possible to ask our 3 new “friends” to stop talking to us. I think the look on my face informed them that I was about to be sick. But that didn’t stop one of the dudes, who I stupidly gave my mobile number to, from texting me for the remainder of the journey.

And after several more hours of driving through what was essentially a planet earth episode, we finally arrive in Shimla! We wished our new friends a very happy Diwali and made empty promises to meet up with them the next day for meals at all of their homes. Val and I caught a cab to the beautiful Shimla Radison Hotel and settled in for some more food, and scenic viewing. We spent the following 2 days in Shimla eating (a lot) and basically staring at the mountains which really never got old. We also had a few close calls with monkeys, and we both agreed that monkeys are no longer novel or cute or funny, they’re just straight up scary.

That's our beautiful hotel!

Samosas and aloo tiki -- Indian potato latkes. HEAVEN

Monkeys at the garbage bins, engaging in their Diwali feast

Shimla sunset

We also watched the Diwali madness, first, up close and personal, on our way to dinner as we had to wait 10 minutes for a box of unexploded fire crackers to explode in our faces before we could walk past it. We also had to wait several minutes after dinner as another box of fireworks was detonated outside of the “restaurant” we had dinner in. The odds were against us and the fact that neither of us had any limb blown off that night was a miracle.

Then we observed more fireworks from the safety of the hotel terrace. I took some pics on my ipod.

We took the Himalayan Queen Toy Train through the mountains down from Shimla to Kalka. Following tourist police incident, our relationship with the Holiday India staff members was strained to say the least. So we  were extremely pleased when Ravindar texted me with the name, mobile number, and car number of our private driver who was to take us back to Amritsar from Kalka train station.

Himalayan Queen

The view was only slightly more impressive than the view from the Montreal to Toronto VIA Rail train

Val and I talked nonstop through the 5+ hour journey (as we had the entire week) and this was a good thing because I was a bit nervous that our driver was going to fall asleep at the wheel. Luckily Val and I don’t know many people who are louder than us and although Mr. Soni couldn’t understand what we were saying, (unless I asked him direct questions about himself in Hindi) our loud and animated conversations kept him awake and (hopefully) focused on the road.

We spent our last day in Amritsar lounging by the pool, Val took in some spa activities (Vurindar, the pool boy, asked me why I wasn’t taking any spa services, and told me it looked like I needed a haircut. Thanks buddy.) And then we went to visit the India-Pakistan border ceremony:

It was incredibly crowded (lots of pushing and shoving and shouting) but very cool and definitely worth the trip up. If not for the food alone. We hit up a small food stand before reaching the ceremony and let’s just say we were in culinary heaven. Must have cost the equivalent of $3 for both of us.

Samosas, aloo tiki, pakoras and "THE GREEN SAUCE!!!"

Spot the white guy

To be fair, the Israeli backpackers were far worse than the Indians

Apparently, it's this packed EVERY DAY--and this was only one set of bleachers

At night we visited the Golden Temple for a second (and last) time to see it at night. It was beautiful.

Air India Fuck-Up

We’d been told by several people that Air India was a shit airline but up until Sunday morning, we hadn’t had any negative experiences. We left our hotel at 7:00am as our flight back to Delhi was scheduled for 8:50. We knew our flight was scheduled for 8:50 because the two of us had been receiving emails bi-weekly from Air India to “confirm” since August. Kinda funny though, Air India rescheduled their flight. Was it delayed? No. It wasn’t delayed. They rescheduled it so that it would leave Amritsar EARLY. Two hours earlier to be precise.

We knew something was wrong when we arrived at the airport and none of the departure screens said our flight name on it. We knew something was really wrong when there wasn’t an Air India counter open. We knew something was EXTREMELY wrong when a Kingfisher employee told us that the Air India flight had already left, the counter was closed and if we wanted to speak with an Air India employee we’d have to go “around the bend” to their office.

Basically they never attempted to email or phone Val or I to inform us of the schedule change. There were about 10 other people that this happened to as well (all Indian) and after a few hours of arguments, stress, frustration, a bit of yelling, lots of patronizing and eventual resignation, Air India called in a favor from Jet Airways and we ALL were able to fit on the next flight out to Delhi. Luckily a bunch of  people missed their flight and we all benefited from this by getting their seats, free of charge.

A whole lot of fuck-all going on and not a lot of customer service

We arrived in Delhi, I booked into my insanely scary hotel in Pahar Ganj, the seedy neighborhood located just outside the New Delhi train station (also, New Delhi’s location for the highest concentration of prostitutes, which someone informed me the next day) and we had a nice lunch and then collectively bought about 30 silk Kashmiri scarves from a beautiful shop in town. The shopkeeper made us some delicious Kashmiri tea and even gave us each a free box of the tea before we left.

This is where I was staying, mom

I said goodbye to Val, spent the worst night of my life in the hotel room, and then the next morning caught the train back to Bhopal.

My welcome back party at the Bhopal train station

And here I am, home sweet home, for one more week before leaving India once again!

Posted in Food, Frustrations, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

A Zara Fail is a Bhopali Tailor’s Win

I’m pretty sure that none of you have been able to forget the tragic story recounted in one of my first blog posts, regarding this fashion nightmare:

https://meltheopinionatedtraveler.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/zara-fail/

I, for one, have been haunted by the events of that fateful day in Clapham Common and I’m sure you all have too. As a result of this Epic Zara Fail, I haven’t been able to wear those pants since I arrived in India. Instead, I’ve looked longingly at them every time I’ve opened my little cupboard of clothes here.

After putting it off for long enough, I headed out to the chowk (old market) in Bhopal on Monday night to try and find a piece of fabric that could be used as a patch to cover up the hideous gaping hole marring what were once a very beautiful (and pricey) pair of linen pants. My buddy and co-worker Tabish accompanied me. This being my first time back in the chowk since 2008, I was impressed with how easily I was able to navigate my way through the narrow, crowded streets to find the fabric vendors. (Thanks for giving me  your stellar orientation skills, dad).

I was unimpressed, however, with the service being provided to me by the lovely market vendors. I would start out by approaching a fabric stall and showing my ripped pants to a vendor, asking for “same color”. No one wanted to help me. I guess they were thrown off by the linen. And even after I explained that I didn’t want the exact fabric, per se, just a similar color, I was constantly met with the words “No colors, madam.”

No colors??? But I was looking at THIS:

Those sure as hell look like colors to me...

At one kiosk, I asked a husband and wife duo to take down a pile of colors that all seemed like viable matches. But the wife insisted that this wasn’t what I wanted, trying to convince me that I really wanted a shade of blue (color blind?) and I left, feeling defeated.

After a few more tries I ended up at a kiosk run by a bunch of playboys. After rudely shoving my way past a group of burka and sari clad women I asked to be shown some colors. No one wanted to help me. I found this astonishing.

“Why won’t they help me?!” I asked Tabish, “Ask them why they won’t help me!!!” I demanded.

Now Tabish, is awesome, but he could really take a couple lessons from me in the bitch department. He’s very soft-spoken and non-confrontational and didn’t feel very comfortable translating my frustrations to the vendors. So I did what any normal Opinionated Traveler would do: I climbed up into the stall myself and pulled down the colors that I wanted.

Close enough

Tabish was mortified.


The color wasn’t exact but at that point, the expression “beggars can’t be choosers” was starting to come to mind.  I bought about a quarter meter for Rs 10 (25 cents).

Challenge #1 accomplished. Now to find someone to sew the patch on for me! Bhopal is filled with tailors. And I was planning on approaching a lovely stall in Qazi Camp with a sign that says “Ladies Only Tailors”. But as luck would have it, the day after I bought my fabric, the tailors seemed to vanish. Literally, a metal grate had been pulled down over the little room where the tailor had been.  It’s as if it was never there.

So instead, I approached a Muslim man with a sewing machine who I have seen once in a while on my morning walks to Chingari Trust. Still not quite sure if he operates a legitimate business, or if he just likes to work with the door open. I used my best Hindi to explain what I wanted him to do with the ripped pants and the new fabric (although, I’m pretty sure the task was relatively self-explanatory). Regardless, he accepted the challenge and told me to come back “Kal, doh ba-je” (tomorrow at 2:00) to retrieve the pants.

He didn't want me to take his pic. Oops.

Discussing the dynamics of the operation

I got a bit of a grilling from Shanaz (the Sambhavna librarian) as well as Sanjay, for just giving my pants over to someone without actually verifying that he is, in fact, a tailor. But in my opinion, there was no way I could loose. Plus, he had a sewing machine, a nice smile, and a beard that made him look wise, what’s the worst that could happen?

Well, 2:00 on Saturday turned into 6:00. I meandered over to the man’s home and just like the “Ladies Only Tailor” a metal grate had been pulled down where the sewing machine once was. I loitered around for about 15 minutes, chatting with my kids, until the children of the tailor came outside to tell me to come back at 6:00.

I eagerly returned at 6:00pm (like a fucking idiot) only to be crushed when I saw the grate closed again. The ladies sitting on plastic chairs next to his home told me he was out praying. [The call to prayer has become so normal to me now that I don’t even notice it. In retrospect I probably should have realized that this nice Muslim man wouldn’t be working during 4th prayer call of the day] They said come back in an hour.

When I went out later that night around 8:30, the door was still closed.

….wait one more day.

Sunday passed and I made a point to pass by SEVERAL times throughout the day. Each time I was greeted by the same closed metal door and 3 old ladies laughing.

Mu je mera kapre chaiiay!” (I wan’t my clothes!) Then they all cackled at me. Apparently every time I passed by, he happened to be out praying.

I wasn’t very optimistic Monday morning as I passed by on the way to work at Chingari Trust. BUT — as luck would have it, later on in the afternoon, as Tabish was giving me a lift back to Sambhavna on his bike, I was thrilled to see that not only was the door open, but my buddy was sitting there behind the sewing machine!

Had he completed the stitching? No. Had he even started? No.

He asked me to have a seat in front of the sewing machine, I thanked Tabish for the ride and settled in to the extremely cramped space to watch him get to work. (Keep in mind, he told me my pants would be ready to be picked up at 2:00pm on Saturday, it’s now 12:00pm, Monday.)

Or course, this attracted some adorable spectators.

So while buddy sewed a patch on to my pants, we passed the time by having a little chat using my “functional” Hindi. He asked me questions about myself: Where am I from? He has never heard of Canada. What religion do I practice? I’m a godless infidel. Am I married? Nope, shameless unmarried inauspicious woman…

[This is all true, none of this is fabricated for comedic purposes]

And I asked him questions too. Shouldn’t you use less fabric? No, butt out.  Should we cut the fabric into a different shape, like a circle? No, butt out and let me do my job, woman. Are you sure that’s the best color thread to use? No comment.  Can I take your picture? Hells no.

Eventually he was finished and I was happy! (Happy that he did a good job? Or just happy that the whole ordeal was over? Not sure.) I tried to pay him Rs 100 but he only accepted Rs 10. Overall, it only cost me Rs 20 (50 cents) to right what Zara has wronged!

Here’s what the  highly anticipated  finished result looks like:

Look at that fine craftsmanship!

To conclude, will I ever wear the pants again? Well, that’s up for debate. What’s important is that I had a goal and I accomplished it–all within one week and all within Old Bhopal!

Posted in "Fashion", Frustrations, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Chingari Trust Kids Trip to the Children’s Park

Today the Chingari Trust and Rehabilitation center organized an outing for the children and their mothers to a large “Children’s Park” in a wealthier area of Bhopal.

The morning began predictably when the 2 busses they had rented showed up 1 hour and 15 minutes late to pick everyone up. But when they finally did arrive, the kids were thrilled.

Loading everyone into the busses and Chingari-owned vans was a bit of a production.

It’s already a difficult enough task to get 60 physically and mentally challenged children into 2 tiny clown-sized busses, but on top of that, most mothers brought their other children as well–so their entire families could enjoy the exciting day excursion. We hadn’t planned for such a large crowd and we were running short of space.

Surprisingly it didn’t take too long for everyone to load into the vehicles, but suffice to say, we were looking at a tight squeeze.

To be fair, I've seen far less experienced drivers around here

There were so many people and so little vehicles that some kids had to ride with the staff…

Meanwhile, the action never stops here. Right before all the staff was ready to leave, a man walks in carrying sick looking baby. He was in tears as he showed us that the baby has no eyes, and some kind of skin condition and wanted to know if he could access the help of the people at Chingari. Rashida Bee and the Trust’s accountant spoke with him for some time, to inform him of what he needs to do in order to register his child with them.

Two full hours after the original scheduled time of departure, everyone was ready to go. I opted out of the hot crowded bus and got a ride on Tabish’s bike, with Tarique and Shanu driving alongside us the entire time.

We were riding so close to each other that we were able to chat easily,

and pass my camera back and forth from one speeding motorcycle to the next in order to take some pics (there goes my vow to do everything in my power to keep this camera safe).

When the biker gang arrived at the Children’s Park the children were nowhere to be seen. After a quick call to the staff who had taken the busses, we learned that, since the “permission form” was with Shanu, the guards in the park would not let the group enter. Nice eh?

Children, locked out from the Children's Park

So the park guards basically made 60+ disabled children and their mothers sit outside in the parking lot. Who does that?

...at least they found some shade...

So after taking his sweet ass time examining the “permission form” (to visit a public park?)…

…buddy finally decides to let everyone in! And the kids RUSHED to the gate…

Thanks bro!

And scattered into a million different directions!

I couldn’t help but be brought me back to my camp counselor days, when we would always have a special meeting right before a field trip. Reviewing all policies and procedures and emergency plans in case any one of those little brats got lost. Needless to say I didn’t ask the Chingari staff if they had any semblance of a plan in case someone goes missing. I mean after all, they did just bring several disabled children to a massive park. However, unlike the kids I used to work with at the SJCC Day Camp in Ottawa, these children are much better behaved and no one went unaccounted for.

Some of the kids ran straight for this giant slide shaped like an elephant…

But were hugely disappointed to notice, upon reaching the top,

That there was a sizeable puddle of mud right at the base of the trunk/slide. So they all had to go back down via the steps.

Gutted.

It took about 45 minutes of everyone running around the park grounds,

until we all amassed together in one area, and started lunch.

We actually brought ICE! Something I’ve rarely seen in India. The ice was smashed up with a cricket bat, and the kids enjoyed some nice cold water…

After being nagged by 30 pseudo-moms to “Kaho, kaho!” (eat, eat!) I finally sat down and had something myself. I love Indian food.

Except for that sweet white milky stuff, that I can do without.

After eating something, I found myself a baby that I liked…

…and then I took it.

It was a truly wonderful day for the kids. Almost all of them live in densely populated, dirty, polluted neighborhoods and the trip to this big open space was something that they cannot experience often. They had the chance to really run around breathe some fresh(ish) air, and just be themselves.

Amazing: The kids are all enjoying themselves playing soccer, badminton and cricket on the pitch when this A-hole decides its an appropriate time to start mowing the lawn. I was like "Euch, you've gotta be kidding me."

There were a lot of happy faces today!

Menakshi!

Sham Babu loved this toy train

Tabish with his "favorite" (even though you're not supposed to have favourites, another camp counselor lesson, we all do)

Tarique with Menakshi, Chaia and Sham Babu. Menakshi thought the rabbit ears was HILARIOUS.

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Birthdays in Bhopal and Other Social Activities

Having people to hang out with at night in Bhopal is extremely fortuitous. Especially if those people are interesting and cool. It’s lonely and boring at the clinic at night and to say that Old Bhopal doesn’t have much of a lively social scene would be a galactical understatement.

Over the past couple weeks my exclusive clique has consisted of cool and interesting people like Colin Toogood, who works for the Bhopal Medical Appeal office in the UK. He’s here for a couple weeks with the ridiculously talented documentary photographer/photojournalist Alex Masi, working on some projects for the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

We took this pic right before our auto driver stopped abruptly mid-route to make us transfer into his buddy's auto for no discernable reason.

Alex has an intimidatingly impressive list of publications and if you’ve ever taken a picture, looked at it, and thought to yourself,  “Hey, I’m actually a pretty good photographer!”, just check out his work and you’ll immediately feel lame. I know I did.

http://www.alexmasi.co.uk/home.php

Mr. Masi in action

Then there’s Neelam, Alex’s fixer/translator/bodyguard/Ramayana story recounter. He does an amazing job at all of these things.

Neelam with one of the Chingari Trust kids

My favorite Bhopali of all time is Sanjay Kumar. Born just a few months before the 1984 Gas Disaster, Sanjay and his family were tremendously impacted by the tragedy and its after effects. He is one of the most vibrant and genuine people I’ve ever know and I’m really lucky to have become his friend.

Sanjay, lecturing me about life.

Check out Sanjay in the new BHOPALI  documentary:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttD-1oT9M7M

Our preferred activities include, but are not limited to:

Having drinks in fancy hotel bars…

Jehan Numa Palace bar, "Happy Hour"...indeed

Saying really offensive things that sometimes make even Sanjay borderline uncomfortable…

Trying new things—like this red wine Colin gambled on,  straight from the bountiful vineyards of Maharashtra!

"Not very full-bodied"

Chilling in Alex’s room at the Hotel Sonali “Regency” which has air conditioning (and room service chai…)

As well as a really awesome view from the balcony…

Im afraid the (unreasonably large) Hotel Sonali staff are utterly scandalized by my prostitute-like presence as they can’t even look me in the eye when I come in or out of the lobby. Some nights someone takes me back to Sambhavna via motorcycle, other nights I have to take the “auto of shame” home by myself.

Having friends in Bhopal makes the days go by faster and things seem more exciting as well. Most especially, having guys around has allowed me to actually experience Old Bhopal at night. Something I’ve never really been able to do here (bar a couple awkward weddings or something).

In case you were previously misinformed, men rule the world.

__________

A few years ago Alex won an award for taking this photo–

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/when-a-subject-needs-more-than-thanks/

–of a little girl named Poonam, who lives in Oriya Basti with her 4 siblings, parents and grandmother. Over the past couple years Alex has returned to Bhopal to photograph Poonam and her family, and to document the changes in her life  since he was first recognized for the photograph.

Poonam, on the left, with her best friend Mohini

Poonam and her 4 siblings, Sachin, Aati, Ravi and Jyoti, live in one of the water contaminated slums of Bhopal. Sachin, who is about 17 years old, is one of the Chingari Trust kids. He cannot walk, his legs don’t extend to a standing position and he moves around using his upper body and arms, or a wheel chair like apparatus that he rides. Despite all of this, he’s got a winning personality as well as mad skills at cricket.

Sachin's wheelchair vehicle

It was Poonam’s 9th birthday last Sunday night (also Gandhiji’s birthday, an auspicious day indeed) and Colin and I were lucky enough to be included by joining  Alex and Neelam for the modest festivities.

The beautiful birthday girl in her new dress

Sachin, Jyoti, Mohini and Poonam

The night consisted of some typical birthday activities…

Birthday cake

A birthday gift

As well as some less typical birthday activities…

Being honored with marigold garlands

Mine and Colin's pale in comparison to Alex's multiple garlands (favoritism)

We were served chai (of course) and a delicious meal while all of Poonam’s family and neighbors enjoyed watching us eat. Her father insisted on refilling all of our plates before we even had a chance to breathe between bites.

...It just kept coming...

After dinner we went out into the ‘hood to check out some local puja ceremonies for the Navrati festival. [What’s basically seemed like a 6 day nonstop worship/dance party all over Bhopal involving lots of ornate statues of the Goddess Durga looking super tough]

I'm pretty sure I've seen at least 700 of these this week

As we approached one such puja ceremony, wielding multiple cameras, the attention rapidly switched from goddess worship to angrezi (English people) fascination and before and a large crowd began to assemble away from the staged shrine. Eventually a (seemingly devote) woman approached us to ask us to leave, as our presence was distracting the worshippers from….the right type of worship…

As we walked away a man made an announcement on one of those loud speakers and Neelam says it went something like “Okay now that the white people have gone, can we get back to praying?”

______________

The following night I was invited to accompany Tabish to a birthday “party” for the son of Vidya, a community outreach worker with Chingari Trust.

Once again, the night involved some typical and untypical birthday activities…

Like shopping with Tabish fir a birthday present,

Eating dinner and birthday cake on a double bed with  over 13 other people…

mmmm...tastes like cavities...

Birthday boy

And taking some photos of Vidya’s family and guests…

What's a girl gotta do to get a smile around here?

Tough crowd

____________

To round out the week of socializing, I did something particularly shameful with my friend Angela yesterday.

I meet up with her in New Bhopal at the uncomfortably lavish D.B. Mall

From Old Bhopal to D.B. Mall--it's like traveling to an alternate dimension. (There's a KFC and a United Colors of Benetton)

We thought it would be fun to treat ourselves to cheap Bhopali pedicures…

Excited...but also a bit sketched out...

…but were a bit put off by the 2 men who came into the room to do them.

The leg massage felt really good –I was a bit discomforted, however, later on when I discovered multiple bruises all up and down my calves. It made me miss Danielle…she fucking loves strong calf massages. Love ya, Dan. (Dan likes getting shout-outs in my blog, if you want one, just make a request).

When I got back to Old Bhopal I popped in on the most local worship shrines near Sambhavna, responsible for the blaring bass bumping nonstop worship/house music that has come from their yard for the last 8 days. Also responsible for the slow degradation of my sanity.

Little Vishal on the left, Big Vishal on the right, Rohit back and center.

I ended the night with a lovely sunset bike ride compliments of Sanjay…

And a lake view dinner at Wind n’ Waves (or vind n’ vaves as you must call it if you want the auto-rickshaw driver to understand where you want to go) a favorite among middle class Bhopalis and beer-craving angrezis.

Not ALL of Bhopal is completely disgusting

Especially when there's beer around!

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