Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pindari and Kaphni Glacier Trek: Part 3

Days 11 and 12: Khati
I decided to stay in Khati for a little while to help out Scott and Bonnie, and see what life is like there. Scott and Bonnie live in an abandoned building that they renovated to turn it into a tiny but cozy home. As I sat and drank coffee with them, a number of people dropped by with requests for the two. A few people came to report problems with the solar lighting systems Scott set up for them. One boy came to say that his mother was sick and asked that Scott come look at her. We sat for a while sipping our coffee and talking. "I bet we seem quite callous sitting around with that woman on her death bed right now," Bonnie said. She then went on to explain that the villagers try to stockpile medicines by pretending they have illnesses, or exaggerating real illnesses, so that they can have them for more serious issues later. The problem is that there isn't an understanding of the uses for things like antibiotics - they're taken as a cure for everything.

A water powered grain mill in Khati

Scott is pretty much the official village doctor. His medical training comes almost entirely from a book called Where There Is No Doctor, but the work he does in Khati seems to be a great success. Scott told me the story of the first time he gave someone stitches. It was a girl who had been out in the forest chopping wood and sliced her foot with an axe. When Scott arrived she was unconscious from loss of blood, and her family were standing around praying and waiting for her to die. Scott stitched her foot up, realized he'd done it wrong, and did it again - All without local anasthetic. Now he says he's pretty good at making the stitches, and even has xylocaine (easy to get fom the pharmacy a day's hike and jeep ride away) to numb the areas up. It's pretty amazing that the lack of regulation in India means he can do pretty much whatever a normal doctor can with medicines he can easily buy in a pharmacy. When I asked whether HIV/AIDS was an issue, Scott told me that as far as he could tell it's not yet. Recently, however, a husband who'd been down in the plains working died of unknown causes (they don't do autopsies) and his wife died within a few months also. Scott suspects this may have been HIV brought from contact with sex workers while the husband was working in the plains. He thinks government programs to employ men in their home villages have (unintentionally) helped stem the spread of HIV into the area because fewer men are leaving for the slums of the plains to find jobs.

In addition to being the doctor, Scott's main project at the moment has been installing 70 solar panels and LED lights in all the houses around Khati. Scott and Bonnie raised money in Australia, and are sourcing the lighting systems from an NGO in Mumbai who gives the systems to them at a highly subsidized (but still substantial) rate. They then subsidize it further with the money they raised to give a system free to every family in Khati, and a partially subsidized rate to the businesses in Khati. The small amount of money they've raised from business installations will go to hiring a local man to do repairs and maintenance on the systems when they return to Australia. They say they've got someone in mind - He's of the upper caste so he can enter everyone's kitchen in the village (Lower caste people cannot enter the upper caste peoples' kitchens). During the two days I was with Scott, we visited at least six houses to diagnose and repair problems.

Scott installs an LED light

At one point while walking down to a house in the lower part of Khati to work on some solar issues, Scott asked me to guess where the "other side of the tracks" was in the village. It was pretty easy to tell where the dividing line was between where each caste lived. Houses got much smaller and simpler, and the path changed from cobblestones to dirt. Scott told me only three people in this part of the village are employed (the rest work in the fields, I assume), so there is much less money. Khati was the place where caste was most visible to me in India. It's hard to see any evidence of it in most parts of India, though I had gotten some hints during conversations with Indians I met.

Bonnie spends most days teaching English and art to the local kids. Part of the building they live in they converted for use as a classroom. It's decorated with beautiful art projects by the children. Bonnie speaks quite passionately about the educational issues in the village. Most girls are not enrolled past grade eight. The teachers are absent a majority of the time, and when they do show up usually only teach half days. Kids whose parents decide to send them to better schools end up grades behind because of the poor quality of the school in Khati.

Scott and Bonnie are also very frustrated by the employment situation. Many of the upper caste men are employed in government jobs which means they are paid well, but almost never actually work. Both days I was there they were going on and on about how quite the village was because all the men were off on a "community work day," in which the government pays them to do local infrastructure projects. Most days appparently the men only sit around drinking chai, alcohol and playing cards. They are disgusted by the fact that the men sit around all day while the women work their asses off in the barley and wheat fields, and in the home. Recently when a woman was widowed, the local council gave her license to produce alcohol, and the availability has caused a noticable increase in domestic violence. Government subsidized "army alcohol" is also widely available.

While everything I have just described may have painted a dim picture, Khati seems to be an overall healthy and happy village. Scott and Bonnie have invested a huge part of their lives in the village, and seem to be making a very positive change. One symbol of this is that for the last six months they haven't eaten dinner at home, as every night a local family invites them to dinner. They're even booked up to a week in advance at times! I have immense respect for Scott and Bonnie, and the sacrifices they make to improve the lives of others.

Scott, Bonnie and Khati

Scott and Bonnie's blog can be found at:
Their project's site can be found at:

Day 13: Khati → Supi → Bharari → Bageshwar → Almora
I decide to hike out a different way then I came in. I climb and climb and climb to the pass above Khati, and drop down an obscene number of stairs to reach the village of Supi. The road begins here, but there are no jeeps. So I just start walking down the road. It's hot and dusty and I realize that I'll be walking through dozens of switchbacks. Like a miracle, a pickup truck comes down the road from my back. I flag them down, and hop in the bed of the truck. I ride in the back of the pickup truck, for part with a couple locals, to Bharari, a village about halfway to Bageshwar. There I hop in a share jeep and sit next to an Indian from Delhi, now living in Chicago, who can't stop complaining about how hard the trek was. He'd turned back barely two days in because he couldn't live without his cell phone. He was a nice guy though, and helped me find a jeep to Almora once we reached Bageshwar. This jeep driver insisted on waiting 45 minutes to cram one last person into the jeep. About 20 minutes into the ride we then had to wait half an hour as the magistrate reprimanded and fined him for carrying too many people. Sweet. It was a long day with about four hours of hiking and six hours of jeep travel, but not a terrible way to end the trek.

Locals along the road from Supi to Bharari

Supi Steps


Unknown said...

It's amazing that two young people would devote years of their life in aid work the way Scott and Bonnie have. I really applaud their generosity and tenacity. I'm so glad you got to meet them and see the kind of work they have done. Puts a whole new light on community service, eh?

I think your transition back to life in the US may be hard for a while after all your adventures, and the amazing people you've met and places you've seen, but at least you have wonderful things to look forward to, like some time at home, summer at Tuolumne, and Penn in the fall. We can't wait to have you home for a little while (too short!).


Anonymous said...

Wow...what a great way to spend the closing days of this first trip to India. Amazing scenes, people, stuff going on, etc....curious to see how it all plays out in what you do down the road!

Anonymous said...

p.s., Can't wait to see you in N'awlins on Wednesday. Love, da

David Wasserman said...

Dude, Just home and caught up with you and your travels. I am wowed and can't wait to see yoo in a few days. Love, DW

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