INDIA JOURNAL --2002 (Part 4)

Bombay, India: Wednesday, March 20, 2002: (Note: We had traveled from Bombay to Hyderabad, performed necessary needs assessments on the medical facilities; traveled to Orrisa State where scores of towns had been devastated by the “super cyclones”; performed needs assessments in cities of Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, and many smaller towns and villages. Now we were back in Bombay, ready to make another attempt into the dangerous areas of northwest India that had been destroyed by unprecedented earthquakes. We would be in the Surat areas of Bhuj and Gujarat along the troublesome border of Pakistan): I was beginning to see why we had felt strongly to travel to India as planned, even though from a civil and political perspective it had seemed quite dangerous for us physically.

Following breakfast, we checked out of the Bawa Hotel and boarded our Jet Airways flight #347 for Bhuj.  The city of Bhuj was located near the border of Pakistan, near the Arabian Sea on the western tip of India.  Bhuj was the epicenter of the massive earthquake that killed at least 30,000 people in a matter of two minutes on January 26, 2001.  In Colorado the US Geological Offices measured the earthquake at 7.7 on the Richter scale.  Nearly a million people were left homeless and an additional quarter of a million injured, all within a flash of time.

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In order to land in Bhuj the commercial airplanes had to use the landing strip of the Indian military base close by.  It was a strategic military encampment because it was a main defense on the troublesome border with Pakistan.  As we landed I could see the devastation that had taken place at the military installation.  Almost all the buildings were completely knocked down or at least rendered useless.  The jet fighter planes were housed in temporary camouflaged hangers.  I could only imagine how tight security was when we deplaned.

We stayed Wednesday night at a guest facility at Ghandidham called The Sharma, where we had dinner with a number of World Relief staff folks.

Thursday, March 21

The India Times or India Express newspapers were full each morning of sporadic incidents of the explosive political situation: “six people killed” here in Orissa or “police shoot 12 rioters” in Gujarat or “nine homes torched with people inside in Ahmadabad,” but the widespread murder and perhaps all-out war seemed to be postponed.  It was, indeed, a miracle.  The main towns and cities in Gujarat were under curfew and for a time, train service had been stopped through some areas.  The restraints were proving effective but everyone knew they were temporary.  As soon as the Supreme Court made its final decision there would be open violence.  Each side had openly declared that they would reject the ruling should it go against them. 

In the meantime, Anna Marie and I were tiptoeing through the minefields of violence.  God was mysteriously protecting us each step we were taking.  Anna Marie and I kept reminding ourselves of verses in Psalm 91: 

               He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most high

               shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

               I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my

               fortress, my God, in him will I trust.

What we had seen of the result of the earthquakes was radically shocking to the senses.  Buildings were flattened to the ground.  Only mounds of rubble protruded up from the otherwise flattened landscape.  Occasionally, there would be one wall or a staircase still standing.  Once in a while there would be a commercial building still standing but the huge cracks in the walls and the caved-in roofs had left them uninhabitable.

People had sought temporary places to set up housekeeping.  Most were subsisting under pieces of salvaged timbers or metal beams pulled from the rubble with blue, plastic tarps stretched over for roofs to keep out the hot sun or the rains.  A few temporary, bamboo-and-banana-leaf structures had been brought in by disaster relief agencies.  But mostly the people were living under their own makeshift shelters made from the rubble of what once had been their own homes. 

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Mile after mile, village after village, and town after town in the Bhuj and Gujarat areas there were only flattened sites of devastation and hordes of people trying somehow to exist.  “The ground rose and fell, like the swelling of the tide of the sea.  When the surface rolled the structures crumbled apart and came to rest in piles of rubble.  What you once owned and thought valuable was destroyed and buried under your own piles of stone … the very stones you had used to build your beautiful house.”

We checked out of the Sharma in Ghandidham and traveled by car back to Bhuj.  Arrangements had been made for us to meet with the district governor of Rotary for the 3050 district of Gujarat in Bhuj.  Bharat M. Dholakia was an attorney and notary living in Nagar Chakio just outside Bhuj.

Some of the commercial buildings in Bhuj were still standing even though damaged.  We were to meet Bharat Dholakia along with the former Rotary Governor, Bharat Solanki, and the present Rotary district secretary, Dr. Azim Sheth, at a damaged office building in Bhuj. 

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We finally located the building on a narrow back street filled with rubble.  Governor Dholakia explained to us that he had totally lost his offices and everything in them as well as his home.  Nothing was left of the former governor’s business, and Dr. Sheth explained that his entire clinic had been ruined.  He was now trying to see patients out of his heavily damaged home.

The men were so grateful that we would come to Bhuj to meet them.  They told us that 20 Rotarians in just their club had been killed, and most of their businesses had been wiped out.  We discussed some possible projects together and got the paperwork started for some Rotary matching grants.  I admit that my heart really hurt for those businessmen.  It seemed to them that the world had forgotten them as soon as the crisis faded from the international headlines.  But on a day-to-day basis they were still dealing with their tragic losses and were bravely trying to pick up the pieces of broken businesses and shattered dreams.  Under the piles of dirt and ashes were all their files and accounts, but their assets were gone as were many of their lifelong friends and partners.

As we returned to the military base in Bhuj to depart for Bombay we, once again, met with very tight security and heavily armed soldiers who constantly trained their weapons on us.  We were right next to the India Air Force jet fighters as they were taking off for their reconnaissance missions along the Pakistan border.  Our shuttle had to make its way from the gate at the highway by dodging around the stacked sandbags and foxholes currently being occupied, out to where we boarded our plane.

Our schedule was very tight.  We would fly back to Bombay and have just barely enough time to go from the airport to the Bombay train station where we would catch the train north to Surat city in Gujarat. Fortunate for us, our bags were the first off the conveyor belt at the Bombay airport.  A man and a car had been scheduled to meet us just in front of the busy airport.  The driver kept one hand on the horn button in the car as he sped across Bombay narrowly missing beggars, merchants, trucks, and holy cows.  With just minutes to spare before the Indian train pulled out of the station our driver slid his car to a stop in the dirt and gravel outside the dirty, crowded train station.

Most everyone was already on the train who had tickets. Anna Marie had never been in an Indian train station.  I knew if she were ever to have a cultural panic attack it would be at a local train station.  It really is difficult to reduce to words the sensational damage you receive at such a place.  The filth, grime, poverty, perversity, stench, and noise would startle even well-seasoned wanderers.  The people had absolutely no concept of private space, which we Americans seemed to expect.  In a grocery store or in an American airport we would expect the other person not to invade the presumed space barrier that encircled us in some mystical way.  When someone came too close or bumped us they were more than likely going to get a crusty look, at the least.  But in the third-world countries, especially in horribly crowded places like India, memories of private space and polite civilities served only to mock your sensitivities.  You are going to get pushed, shoved, and pawed at by beggars, and people are going to knock you out of your position in the queue every time there is a chance.  Putrid smells of rotting food, rancid bodies, and acidic urine will slam your olfactory portals like a 10-megaton bomb hitting an Afghanistan cave.

We were trying to push our way through the crowd to get to our designated train coach.  I happened a glance at Anna Marie’s face.  Her eyes were as full as moons in October, and most of the blood had drained from her already transparent Scandinavian skin.  But she was stepping right along, determined to keep up. I saw her look twice at all the people crammed into the end coach cars.  They were already hanging out the windows and doors, and every sardine inside the can was carrying loads of stuff being toted either to or from the market.  I could tell she was thinking, “Oh, how will we, with all of our luggage, fit into this hot, sticky mess?”

We kept nearly running toward the front of the train where we had reservations in a sleeping car.  You must pay a bit more for those accommodations, but the rail company limited the riders to only six in a small compartment.  I knew we all could handle that. Once on board, we found our compartment just as the brakeman blew his whistle and the train started forward with a lurch.  We had to run out a couple of free-loading squatters who had wanted to occupy our seats thinking that we were not going to show up at such a late call.

As I settled into my bench seat the train began to pick up speed.  On the other side of the glass windows of the compartment stark reality slid along the landscape.  Poverty, shanty huts with corrugated tin roofs, raw sewage running openly toward the train tracks, women in dirty but brightly colored saris, scads of naked kids playing with discarded pieces of rope, and wheels broken off from junk carts and old scooters.  People, people, and millions more people.  How did they exist?  Where would they scavenge for their food?  Had they ever taken a bath, or did the filth finally accumulate to a level where it flaked or chipped off?  Did they really find solace in thinking that they would be reincarnated into something better in another 25 or 40 years?  How many of them could look and read any part of the sign that said “sleeper car” on this coach?  Had they ever wondered what the strange ink figures on a piece of newspaper were trying to convey, or did it even matter to them?

My mind went back to the devastated villages in the earthquake and cyclone areas.  Why weren’t the Hindu and Muslim “do-gooders” doing anything humanitarian to help their own countrymen?  It seemed that the only effective relief and reconstruction projects were being carried out by Christian-based organizations, and that was in a country where the population was 82% Hindu and 13% Muslim.

I closed my eyes and welcomed the gentle swaying of the train coach, which seemed to rock some security and sensibility back into my soul.  “Project C.U.R.E. was the right thing to do.  I wanted to spend all the rest of the energy allotted to me in boasting not of wisdom or strength or wealth, but that I would know and would understand God who exercised loving kindness, justice, and righteousness.  I wanted to delight in those things just as he does.”

Next Week: The wonderful Rotary folks of Gujarat