Inspired Words

These are the experiences of our volunteers in India.

Hot sun, warm hearts in India

Posted in India on March 6, 2017

March 17

The final day dawned pretty much like our other days in Rajasthan: clear, hot and sunny. The difference was that today we did not have to work.  Today was all about celebrating how far we had come with the project, about the connections we had made with the local villagers and about the memories we would be bringing back to Canada from working alongside such lovely people. Although we did not share a common language, we definitely made strong connections with the people of a village whose name we still didn’t know.

The villagers had been used to seeing us in our work clothes: old T-shirts, quick dry pants, older sneakers. Today we put on our finery. The women all dressed in their shalweer kameez and baggy harem pants. Mark and Dan put on their kurtas, while the rest of the men wore clean shirts and dress pants.

When we arrived at the work site, instead of heading down to the water-harvesting structure, we went up the hill to a large tent erected for the farewell ceremony. Behind the tent, cooks were mixing spices, stirring broth and making bread to feed the expected 300 guests.

Slowly the tent began to fill – women seated on one side, men on the other, with the Canadians, as usual, all intermingled. To start the ceremony, the villagers added to our attire. We all received a bindi mark on our foreheads, a garland of marigolds, and a thread bracelet.  The women were also given white pashminas, while the men received colourful turbans. Ours were hot pink, scarlet red and orange. The custom in Rajasthan is that male guests wear turbans when visiting.

Heera, the founder of Sahyog Sansthan, was there, as was our local project director, Brabha and his assistant Burha. The stonemasons, Chennai and Kalu-ji, were seated near the front. Their assistants, like Logar, who led the Rockstars to carry heavier and heavier rocks, was seated further back. Our favorite, Ram-ji, who we had nicknamed Thor for his rock-splitting skills, wasn’t to be found.

On the women’s side, most of the women had their faces covered by veils, but all were engaged in the celebration. The DWC volunteers had certainly made friends with these tough, resilient women. The DWC Rockstars also had great admiration for the strength of the women in a more literal sense. We will always remember a young slip of a thing lifting a huge rock onto her head, not once, but throughout the project.

As with any gathering in India, there were speeches. Each DWC volunteer introduced themselves as did many of the key villagers who had made the project possible. These were summarized by Heera or Brabha, either from Hindi into English or vice versa. In part, this was a commercial for Sahyog Sansthan to describe the benefits of a project for future prospective villages who may be thinking about building similar water-harvesting structures. In part, it was to demonstrate to the government officials present that Sahyog delivers results at a fraction of the cost of similar government project.

After the speeches we all ate, all 300 of us. Then we danced. The men took part in a traditional dance that was like a stylized sword dance, dancing in a huge circle under the scorching sun on the hillside, to the accompaniment of drums. The men also got sprayed with Holi colours. The women danced to a Bollywood soundtrack played over the loudspeakers in the tent. I think they had more fun.

We then walked over to the water-harvesting structure (the villagers and Sahyog always used this term, the DWC volunteers just called it a dam) for one last picture of everyone who worked on the project. It had been a remarkable two weeks. It was a very emotional goodbye; as we felt, we were leaving friends and family behind. Many tears were shed. It had been an amazing process and many of us want to return to see how lives have changed. That is the hope.

We headed back to our hotel in Bhinder. The mood was quite subdued as we all processed our experiences and thought of all the special moments that made up the project: that first meeting under the mango tree, learning to count in Hindi, sharing photos on iPhones, the villagers opening their homes to us to share chai, the kids at the school wearing all the DWC dark glasses looking like the Indian Blues Brothers, the “culture night” that turned into World War III, Ram-ji making sure that no one was struck by a falling rock, the young women picking up rocks that two DWC Rockstars (who shall go nameless) had decided was too heavy, and seeing a project from five years ago that had transformed the watershed and the lives in it.

Friends in Canada ask “You went to India to move rocks?” Yes. Would I do it again? You bet.

Andrew Tucker,

DWC volunteer, India, March 2017


March 14
The water harvesting dam is starting to take shape. After a two-day break in Udaipur, we were ready to return to our regular jobs of cement mixing, mortar transfer, transferring rock 50 metres from the pit to the dam site. The rock breaking team, equipped with a large prybar and a 20-lb sledge hammer, was manned by local village men. We were making good progress until the Holi celebratory spirit broke out on the work site, probably sparked by showing our Udaipur Holi photos to the villagers. The younger women asked the boys to bring bags of powder and the young and determined locals managed to rainbow bomb us all AGAIN! Running turned out to be futile but all had good fun.

The work day was shortened by another chai tea excursion at one of the neighbouring family farms. These chai tea breaks are a fantastic opportunity to peek into the personal lives of our Indian work mates and their families.

Today we learned that the women look after the family finances and budgets. They are also organized into micro finance groups of about 15 women who each contribute 100 rupies per month to a bank account – the balance of the group we met is currently at about 7,850 rupies. They meet monthly at one of the member’s homes. Meticulous records are kept and the group has a list of 14 rules to abide by, with penalties for non payment clearly spelled out. Since some of the women are illiterate, they sign their loan agreements with a fingerprint. Interest is one per cent per month and the penalty for late payment is 100 rupies. This penalty is only invoked after being voted on by the other members and extenuating circumstances taken into consideration. The loans are granted primarily for marriage ceremonies and funeral expenses, or to purchase something for the house or in the case of a medical emergency. This micro finance model helps give the villagers confidence and control in their lives, away from the burden of the cumbersome systems of banks and government.

We returned to the hotel and after another fantastic lunch we set off to view a completed project with Heera (the director of the Indian NGO Sahyog Sansthan we have partnered with) and Dr. Manhat, who is their hydrogeologist. The field trip was enlightening as we toured an 800-hectacre watershed area that had been transformed over a 10- to 12-year period. The local villagers (approximately 250 families, or 1,000 to 1,350 people) were engaged with the planning and construction and took personal ownership of the total project through their substantial monetary contribution which took them years to save up. They co-operated to complete a series of 1,000 water control and water retention projects (from small stacked rock dams to larger concrete structures). The tour clarified the scope of their projects and the significant impact on the local population. By working together, the villagers improve their lives with a sustainable water supply system that allows them to now produce cash crops and feed for their animals. This in turn relieves the stress on the native forest, which has a chance to recover. It also helps to conserve water. We now have a clearer sense of how our project fits into the bigger picture.

It was a great way to finish off the day and we returned to our hotel for supper. Heera had then arranged for us to attend what we were were led to believe was a “cultural dance evening” at a nearby village. Only six of us we able to accept due to an outbreak of Delhi belly and tiredness. We hoped our late arrival and diminished numbers would not disappoint our hosts.

We hurried to the event and our drivers did not miss a chance to practice their passing skills multiple times on each other, which I found odd since they seem to be getting plenty of practice in our daily travels!

India has a way of placing you into surreal situations which I am at a loss to describe. They simply have to be experienced and lived through! But nothing could have prepared us for this particular “cultural event” we were about to walk into.

We arrived to find narrow streets alive with people and exploding fireworks, bangers and homemade cannons. And this was just an omen of what lay ahead. Things seemed a little wild and too close for comfort, but we pressed on with the confidence that Praba along with our two drivers and another three young men had our backs. We weaved and dashed past an increasing display of small explosions and fireworks. In short order we arrived at the main square and settled ourselves onto a raised platform in the center that we shared with a throbbing amplified drum band and a mob of men.

The town square was like the hub of a wheel with five streets radiating out. We learned later that the second cultural event was to consist of parading groups of dancers making their way in unison down each street to meet at the square for their dance performance. Their progress up the streets was accompanied by the fireworks and gunpowder cannons and fireballs to liven things up a bit.

Praba neglected to mention that the dance was actually the second event. We had just arrived at the first event which was well underway celebrating the defeat in this very square of a historical Mughal invasion over 400 years ago. It was clear our tardy arrival at the event was not going to be an issue.

We found ourselves on an island surrounded by a sea of explosives ranging from massive rolls of fire crackers, black powder cannons and rifles, endless noise and concussion bombs, and extraordinarily large throbbing exploding fireballs that would rise up in front of us 30 feet into the air. The clouds of sulphur smoke would leave you trying to cover your nose and plug your ears at the same time. On top of this was a friendly crowd of men who were fascinated by us all, but especially Nancy and Linda. Numerous selfies with us were taken. And Nancy’s ankles were quite the attention getters.

Every open space surrounding the square and its exploding inner circle was filled with onlookers. Safety clearly was not an issue. We were thankfully guided off the raised platform in the center of the square through the mayhem and up onto the second floor of an adjacent building.

In the most absurdly over-the top-extravagance, the explosions continued non-stop for at least pne and a half hours. Large exploding fireballs that rose high above our heads while we stood on the second floor blasted us with concussive waves and large burning embers. I cannot imagine a more exuberant over the top celebration of a Mughal defeat!

Needless to say we felt lucky to have survived the first cultural event of the night and thought it wise to leave during a slight lull in the action and forego the dance event. All in all it was an exhilarating evening!

I cannot find words to describe the views and sights and organized chaos that we are treated to each and every day we travel in the passenger seats of our competent driver’s old diesel 4x4 SUV.

Shane Watson,
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 11 and 12
A weekend in Udaipur

After a busy day at the work site, the group returned to the Raj Mahal palace in Bhindar to clean up and have lunch before loading the jeeps and heading to Udaipur for the Holi weekend. Holi is one of the main religious festivals of the Hindu faith, which has become popular with non-Hindus in many parts of India, as well as other parts of Asia.

The staff celebrations start on the night before Holi with Holika Behan, where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of a bonfire and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon kin Hiranyakishipu, was killed in the fire, when trying to destroy their son Prahlad. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all carnival of colours, where people smear coloured powders on each other. Water guns and water-filled balloons are also popular, and anyone and everyone is fair game to be coloured. Some groups carry drums and other musical instruments, while going from place to place.

It's about an hour and a quarter drive to Udaipur, where we were all staying at the Jaiwana Haveli, an old mansion close to the City Palace and Lake Pinchola. The ladies arranged with the hotel to meet a local tailor to get tunics and pants for the weekend’s festivities. The Jaiwana has a rooftop restaurant with lovely views over the lake, although there are a lot of other great restaurants around the lake as well.

Sunday dawned sunny as always and after a wonderful breakfast with the best coffee the group had tasted, some of the group set off for a tour of the City Palace, while others hired a taxi for a tour. The City Palace is the second biggest in India and is truly spectacular. The taxi tourists visited the tenth century Eklingji temple and the ninth century Sas Bahu temple; the Eklingji temple was packed with visitors praying to Eklingji.

Back in the city, there were the Sahelion Ki Bari gardens, created in the 17th century for the ladies of the court and their maids. The gardens are formal with lots of cooling fountains and shady trees (if you need batteries or memory cards, this the place to get them at a good price).

Above the city is the Monsoon Palace, set on top of a hill with views over Fateh Sagar lake, Lake Pinchola and the city. It was originally designed as an astronomical observatory but later became a palace.

After an afternoon boat ride on Lake Pinchola, the team got all dressed up for the Holika Behan celebrations at the City Palace in the evening. This was spectacular event, starting with the Mahayana and entourage parading to the bonfire and partying before the fire is lit. We then moved to tables overlooking a stage, where there was an hour and a half dance display, which was amazing. Prior to the dance, we thought we were having “light refreshments,” which turned out to be a full buffet on China plates!

On the Monday, most of us went out into the streets to take part in the festival of colour. Everyone was very friendly and we had a great time daubing everyone with coloured powders and being coloured ourselves. The crowds could be a little daunting but given the friendliness it was a fantastic experience. Getting the dye off took a bit of work and you need to wear clothes that don't matter if they never get clean again. After a busy morning, it was time to head back to Bhindar.

If you have the time and inclination, Udaipur is a great place to get custom made shirts, jackets or suits made at great prices and in record time. Several team members took advantage of this opportunity to get a shirt that really fits beautifully.

Mark Richards,
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 10
Day 5 of the project dawned overcast with light rain. Not what we were expecting at all but it didn't come to much. We were a tired crew heading out to the work site this morning as we only got home from the cultural festivities after midnight and some of us had danced with the villagers more than others.

The rock work had progressed in another huge bound since we left it yesterday and the women had three mounds of mortar ready to mix. We got the production line of women going again passing the bowls of mortar along the line rather than carrying them on our heads. We are getting the hang of throwing them from one person to the next but you have to stay alert and sometimes you end up wearing the mortar!
Today, work stopped a number of times for the men to heave and lever huge boulders into the trench. These are for the finishing face of the dam wall. The local masons are expert at knowing just where a boulder should go. The rock crew of local and Canadian men and women were further up the hillside moving boulders from the quarry. Some needed eight people plus to carry it on the homemade wooden ladder carrier.

We stopped for tea break and were invited to another house for chai and cookies just over the hill. Another hour of hard work and the wall is progressing well. On our way back to Bhinder, we stopped at the development block office and learned more about how their system of elected locals from the villages govern. A late lunch by the time we had another obligatory stop for chai at the home of an elected elder from another village, but it was delicious as always.
The variety of menu items is astounding. In five days, I don't think we have had any dish repeated. We all have our favourites and after some free time to get ourselves and our laundry clean, we are going to have a cooking demonstration at the Raj Mahal from the chefs. Looking forward to seeing how they make the delicious masala chai (every household makes it slightly differently) and also the mango curry, which is my new favourite.

Jacqui Richards,
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 9
It has been an action-packed day. It's amazing to me how comfortable we are arriving at the worksite now and greeting our new friends with namaste and big smiles. Their infectious smiles and genuine pleasure in having us work alongside them make our job easy. The villagers had again worked late the previous afternoon and the water structure rapidly gained height. The mood today seemed to be let's get straight to work.

The women quickly formed a work chain, passing or tossing large bowls of mortar, one to the other, to the crew in the pit. The bowls were baby, mama, or papa bear, depending on the weight. The young Indian women have the toss down to a fine art, and instructed us on the best way to catch the bowls. Lots of teasing, tickling and laughter as the work continued. The shyness has passed and there is no hesitation letting us know what needs to be done. We also compared earrings, nose rings, saris versus pants and long and short hair styles. Somehow the Indian women keep their saris spotless and we look like we've rolled in the mud by the end of the day.

The men on the opposite side of the stream hauled 4-, 6- and 8-man rocks, which were dumped into the stream with a satisfying grunt. They earned their beer today!

Late morning, we were invited to the home of one of the village elders. It was lovely to meet his family and be treated to a glimpse into their way of life, a tidy stone home, fields of wheat and vegetables and a few goats and cows in the yard. A glass of very tasty chai and we headed off to the primary school.

We were greeted with flowers sprinkled in our hair and a bindi on our foreheads. After a brief welcome we visited each of the classrooms. It was delightful to meet the children, who were full of smiles and loved having their photos taken, especially with our sunglasses on! One classroom wall had ABCs in English, A for apple, B for ball, etc. They also showed off their reading skills in English.

The women had a chance to talk with the school nurse. She is a hardworking and capable woman, providing nursing at school, but also working as the midwife, and the public health nurse who visits family homes, gives immunizations and educates the women on birth control.

After another tasty lunch, we headed to a nearby lake to see egrets, flamingos, painted storks and purple marsh hens. It was a peaceful scene with the red sun setting. We also had the pleasure of attending a cultural night at the village. The local men played drums, cymbals and a lute-like instrument, and sang folk songs. A few men danced in the circle of men and the women in their best saris danced at the back. Once the legs stretched out from the long sit on the floor, we headed home in the jeeps. It was a special evening.

Loving India!
Nancy Robinson,
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 8
It's such a privilege to work alongside villagers from the area west of Bhinder, Rajasthan. They are an incredibly tough people. They live in a harsh landscape where there are rock outcrops interspersed with patches of dirt. But where irrigation is available they are able to grow wheat. That's why we're here.

Developing World Connections has partnered with a local charity, Sahyog Sansthan, to build a low-cost water retention structure (dam). The dam will be 30 metres long by 1.5 metre high and 1.5 metre wide. The dam is to capture the monsoon rains and bring an additional 11 hectares into production. Water behind the dam will seep into the ground and feed five wells, benefitting 30 families.

The worksite is located in a dry creek bed. We haven't seen the village yet, but the site is overseen by two contrasting items. On one is a primitive temple composed of a few boulders, evidence of incense sticks, and coloured dye smeared on rocks. On the adjoining hillside a huge electricity transmission tower looms over the worksite awaiting wires to connect India's power grid. And we work between the two.

I am constantly struck by the juxtaposition of old and new in India. The only tools on site are a sledge hammer, a hoe for mixing cement, and a carrier for the heavier rocks. But today we had a tractor that dropped off a load of rocks and some more cement and the film crew was there to record our efforts.

Everyone seems to be reaching for cell phones - Canadians and villagers alike. The stone masons in the trench, wearing traditional clothes will stop to take a call. The women seem particularly interested in photos of our families.

Each day we arrive at the worksite remembering the state of the dam from the day before. But after we have left, they have kept working. It's like the dam grows magically, overnight. But to give credit where it's due, the villagers have carried on without us. The dam continues to grow daily at an incredible rate.

Essentially there are three work parties. Dan Miller has described them as the Mortar Maids, the Rockstars, and the Gutter Guys. The Mortar Maids, women only, keep up a steady flow of cement. Mixing it with a massive hoe and then taken to the trench where the dam will rise, balanced on their heads in bowls like woks. The Rockstars, a mix of DWC volunteers and local women move rocks from a hillside close by to the trench. A villager splits the rocks with a sledge hammer and then the Rockstars cart the rock away. The only concession to technology is the rock carrier - two poles like a stretcher. We have two-man rocks, four-man rocks and six-man rocks. "Man" is important because the local women seem to have no problem carrying two-man rocks. Finally, the Gutter Guys (a name that has not been shared with them) assemble the raw materials into the dam.

It's hot dusty work, but we are definitely making headway.

Andrew Tucker
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 7
We were up, fed and on the road to the work site by 9 a.m. Our partners were already busy when we arrived. After taking a few moments to admire yesterday's progress on the dam, we got to work.

The work was divided in the same way as yesterday: mixing and carrying mortar, breaking rock and carrying it to the dam and laying the rock and mortar to build the dam. It's all hot, hard, heavy work and we tried it all. It's an interesting contrast. While we're dressed in our work clothes, gloves, hats, sunglasses and closed-toed shoes, our partners are bare-handed, in flip flops and without eye or sun protection. And we're the ones who are red-faced, chugging water, checking our phones to see how close we are to end of our work day.

As the day progressed, we noticed that some of formality and unease of yesterday had disappeared, especially among the women.

There were more uncovered heads, smiles and giggles - especially at our attempts to carry rocks and mortar in their customary way, on the top of our heads. We were all amazed by the strength and grace of the women, some carrying up to twenty kilos this way. (Vowing to become more skilled at this, we made a trip to the market after work to buy towels to make our own head cushions). Sharing photos of families and trying to communicate ages and numbers and the coldness of snow also helped to build bridges.

We also learned we were local celebrities. The community newspaper published an article with our picture, names and information about the project. The paper obviously has a wide readership - on our way through the market after work, we were asked if we were the Canadians and thanked us for our good work.

Catherine Johnson
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

March 6
Today was our first day of work. After a wonderful breakfast of bananas, crepes and a sort of curried cream of wheat (it was good – really!) prepared by the staff of the Raj Mahal Hotel, team leader Richard gathered us together and went through the checklist of essentials. Did we have sunscreen? Hats? Sunglasses? Work gloves? Our DWC t-shirts? The film crew would be meeting us at the job site today to record the initiation ceremony and the beginnings of the project and we needed to look good!

The 12 of us then climbed into our two jeeps and drove for about 15 minutes outside of town into the countryside, passing dry pastureland with withered trees, cacti and rock dry-stack fences and a few home sites surrounded by small fields of what looked like mature wheat. We saw women harvesting the wheat by hand and stocking it in piles. We saw herdsmen watching their goats. We saw mothers with their small children on the side of the road. We passed a school and another official looking building and then arrived at our work site.

We piled out of the jeeps and were met by the people of the village: about 20 women of various ages in colourful saris, members of the board of our local partnering organization, about 10 older men and four small boys with a big drum!

Drummers at work

We exchanged “namastes” with hands pressed together and small bows. I found it to be an emotional few minutes. I am not sure what they thought of us, but for me it was a humbling experience to be welcomed by these people.

We were given name tags with our names written in Hindi script and some of the villagers and officials were given name tags with their names written in English. The boys proudly began drumming and led our procession along a path and up a hill to a seating area beneath a large tree (one elder said it was 90 to 100 years old). The women sat together off to one side and we were instructed to remove our shoes and have a seat on the blankets laid on the ground. The men sat together directly across from us and we all looked at each other sometimes only with glances, other times our eyes met. It was difficult to see what the women were looking at since most of them had their saris covering their heads and their faces and looked down and away often. But I think they were studying us just as much as we were studying them.

The men were given their bindis (a small red stripe in the center of the forehead) by Kalu (one of the village men) and a necklace of flowers was placed around their necks, each by a different older village man. The women were given their bindis (small round dot) by Dalee (one of the village women) and a necklace of flowers was placed around their necks, each by a different older village woman. Chai tea was served to all the guests. Everyone introduced themselves and the official speeches were make. This project is to build a dam to collect the monsoon rains to aid with irrigation and replenishing the wells. The village consists of about 30 subsistence farming families. They chose the location for the dam and contributed some money (and labour) to ensure ownership of the project. We learned of a similar dam constructed upstream built 20 years ago that is still working. That dam has allowed villagers to expand their fields and produce enough crops so they have surplus to sell.

Then we went to the work site. A trench had already been dug with a machine about 100 metres long and two metres deep. Villagers had already poured a concrete base. The first four rocks were placed on this base with mortar and each blessed with a bindi. Then Richard, one of the board members of the partner organization and some of the older village men and women placed their hands on the rocks while blessings were made and a type of sugar-cane-coconut candy was placed on the rocks as an offering (I think).

Then the real work began. The women were in charge of mixing the concrete with trowels and carrying large bowls of mortar to the ditch. The older men were in charge of placing the rocks and the mortar in the ditch and breaking the rocks from the hillside nearby. Richard stood in the ditch and took the mortar from the women and dumped it where he was instructed by the stone masons. Some of us helped mix the concrete and carry it. Others walked up the hill and carried rocks down to the ditch. The women did most of the heavy work. They carried large bowls of mortar and large rocks on their heads with apparent ease and definite grace and perfect posture. The youngest of the women was about 14 and the eldest about 70 (?). These ladies collected smaller gravel from the river bed and tamped the mortar with a small tool. There were several young men sitting in the shade on a rock wall watching who did not participate in the work. Not sure why. There were also half a dozen younger boys (maybe four to eight years old) who watched. No small girls were on site.

The women I worked with seemed generally shy. It was difficult to tell if they were smiling or not because their faces were covered most of the time, but I think I heard some giggles throughout the day. I don’t know how much, if any English they know but I was surprised to hear one of the younger women counting with Caroline and I all the way to 30. The two ladies who seemed to be in charge of mixing the concrete were definitely not shy about telling me when I was doing something wrong, or when they needed more water. We worked mostly in silence but when lunch was announced at 1:30 p.m. we ALL sat down with relief and a feeling of a job well done. It was a rewarding day to see the progress we make on the dam.

As we were driving away, we saw several students heading home from school for lunch. They were wearing school uniforms and seemed to be about eight to 14 years old. Lots of smiles and waves. There are so many questions to ask and so much to learn. It is a good thing we have more days on this project.

From Bhinder with gratitude, Linda,
DWC volunteer, India, March 2017

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