Friday, November 16, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

N'djamena, Chad is where my adventure began and now where it ends. After spending twelve weeks in Chad, meeting wonderful people, discovering different lifestyles, adapting to a culture and carrying out a study that I would never have dreamed of. Twelve weeks can seem like a lifetime at one moment, and next, I wonder where all the time has gone.

I spent my short time in N'djamena catching up with my CCF colleagues at the office and learning more about the progress of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program that reintegrates former soldiers back into communities, this is an amazing program, rapidly gaining momentum, and expanding to help others.

My dear readers, it has been an absolute pleasure sharing my experience with you. I hope that you were able to learn more about life in Eastern Chad, CCF's work with Chad, and the populations CCF impacts.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

My chapter in Chad is already coming to an end. Yesterday, even though I could have spent more time working in the office, I went to Iridimi Refugee Camp for the last time to meet with my group of survey interviewers. Among the three camps, I spent the most time with them.
I believe that this group represented the best and brightest in the camp. Among them were community educators, teachers, mothers, fathers, students, and the director of primary schools.

As part of my role in doing this survey, I have a number of responsibilities to my interviewers. This includes sharing results and taking account their response into my report. In discussing some of the results, we debated about the utility of the rights of a child in the refugee situation. We also conversed about rights of a refugee, and the urgent needs related to water, food and education.

I was inspired and once again reminded about their strength, resilience, and their ultimate desire to improve their quality of life and their communities. It is so easy to forget that they have been living in the camps for three to four years, forced from their homes because of conflict, leaving behind their homes, their liberty to move about and make independent choices. Yet, here they were, doing their best to survive, and for many, improving the quality of their lives, enriching their communities, and providing for their families.

It was extremely difficult to say good-bye to my interviewers. There was Elham, a quiet young lady, educated at the university in El Fasher, and a teacher at one of the primary schools. Though she hardly said a word to me the entire time, her quiet presence, her flawless work, and her smile always reassured me. Mahamat Ahmat Jaffoun, one of the primary school directors, sported a wool scarf wrapped around his head and tied around his chin. He never failed to make me laugh with his practical jokes. Hassan Mahamat Djouma, a teacher for CCF's literacy program for women, bowed his head respectfully towards me each time we met. Then there were my two favorite assistants, Hamid and Aladin, each fourteen years of age. Their extreme intelligence always threw me off. They were fluent in Arabic, and were well on their way with both French and English. These people, with their unique personalities that are impossible to capture in a few sentences, are the ones who I will miss, who I will advocate for, and who are the catalysts for progressive thinking—they are the movers and shakers of the community. To say the very least, I think we had all learned from the process of the interviews, from the results, and from each other.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Arriving in the southern city of Bangalore, India, you have the sense that you have been transported back 100 years to the time of British colonialism. Unlike northern India with its marble palaces and red sandstone forts, Bangalore appears to the visitor to be a colonial town that you might see in southern England-- not India. With tree-lined street and bountiful parks, the Gothic-like churches and government buildings are designed and built of solid granite blocks with traffic policemen in crisp khaki uniforms and pith helmets adorn with large flowing feathers. Ye gads, you would think the Queen’s Regiment was going to come marching down the street at any moment!

Everything is orderly and yet totally disorderly in Bangalore. Yes, I am reminded that this is India where reality is seen through a slanted prism that never gives you the true picture of what you are observing. First, the residents of this proper town do not call it Bangalore-- it is now called Bangalooru! This changing of names of cities has become quite a fad in India as it struggle to shed its’ British colonial history by returning to its true heritage before the Brits decided that the ‘sun never sets on the’... well, you know, blah, blah, blah. So we now have Mumbai instead of Bombay, Chennai instead of Madras, and Bangalooru instead of Bangalore. Still, the residents of Bangalooru have retained some very good traits from this era of commercial British imperialism and incorporated them into their culture and norms. Just listen to the cadence and structure of the spoken English-- close your eyes and you will swear that you are listening to an elegant lecture at Oxford. Bangalooruians or whatever they choose to call themselves, have a love for parks, gardens, statues, and tea time. Ah, tea time, we Americans could never understand the true value and personal enhancement of an engaging afternoon tea time, but the people of Bangalore relish their tea and pleasant conversation.

Our study tour group of sponsors are transfixed in a time warp as we explore this wonderful city of old and new. You can almost hear the sounds of carriages on cobblestone streets although visually all you see are thousands of cars going in all directions like ants in panic mode. There is new construction everywhere in Bangalooru as this city becomes a mecca for the high-tech industry of Asia. In less than 15 years, the population of this city has doubled along with the need for housing, transportation and medical care. International technology companies have established very modern ‘corporate campuses’ attracting well-educated and trained population of professionals. You have probably talked to some of them who are employed by call centers serving such companies as Sears, CitiBank, Home Depot, and Lands End. So when you call to complain about your Black and Decker drill that will not work properly, “Jimmy" will calmly handle your questions as if he where just down the street from your house. He has practiced his ‘American accent' and can correct the problem you are experiencing-- from 9,000 miles away! Quite a feat for this little city that was originally called ‘Pot of Beans’ by the original inhabitants. It is quite remarkable to see how technology businesses have changed the demographics as well as the culture of this city. Our sponsors see the real ‘promise’ and hope the growing Indian economy in the faces of these young professionals who are reshaping customer service and technology innovation throughout the world.

We are going to stay three days in this city and our sponsors are going to be very surprised by what they see and hear from our CCF hosts in India. More about all these activities later, it is now ‘tea time’ for me at my office in Richmond, Va., and I brought back a few packets of strong black tea from southern Indian. A touch of milk to your steaming cup of eyelash-curling tea and you’re all set to relax and reflect on the day. Cheers!

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Monday, November 12, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Impressionable India

When I last left you, we had rumbled, stumbled, and wrestled our way into the ancient city of Jaipur after a test of endurance and shaky nerves on the small road from Agra. We had left one roadside ‘rest stop’ with endless impressions of hungry foreigners devouring everything in their small store and passing out gaudy beads to anyone with enough courage to approach our alien group of vagabonds.

I can imagine the stories their children and grandchildren will hear for generations of the day strange ravenous Americans suddenly invaded their small village and ate and drank everything in sight while energetically taking photos of cows, camels, and pigs. US-India relations could have been dealt a serious blow by the manifestation of cultural weirdness displayed by our road-beaten gaggle of galloping CCF sponsors, but somehow I feel that everything came out on positive note as evident by the entire village quickly assembling to see us off on our tiny bus from another world. They smiled and waved furiously as we left this village, probably with a sense of relief and reverence that the Hindu god Vishnu had intervened to save them from these wacky American tourists.

Now I must mentioned that after a long day of travel, arrival in Jaipur presented another unexpected obstacle-- getting into the city through a narrow hilly roadway lined with gigantic block walls constructed by some Moghul chief about 500 years ago to protect his palaces and treasures from competing chieftains. Okay, many years ago, arriving by horseback up this trail would have presented no problem, but now there are hundreds of cars, buses, motorcycles, auto rickshaws and trucks of all sizes trying to enter this city through a passageway built for horses!! Gridlock supreme is the normal order and everyone seems to think if they honked their horns loud enough, the stone walls will come crashing down and a new HOV super-sized-asphalt lane will suddenly appear to relieve their frustration.

Just what’s up with all this horn honking in India? Everyone seems to do it all the time with no fear of offending the other drivers or the expectation that anyone will actually respond to their incessant honking of horns. Of course, the larger trucks don’t just honk…they bugle!...they play musical notes!....they snort and snarl with ear-piercing blasts from their air horns. Still, the Indian people do not seem to mind…in fact, they encourage this head-banging behavior by actually posting signs on the back of their vehicles that read. “Honk, please.” This nation has gone looney-tunes with this hapless honking behavior and some of our sponsors have astutely suggested the implementation of a ‘honking code’ where each variation of honking indicates a command or obscenity hurled at the opposing vehicle. Thus, one short honk may mean ‘please’ followed by three long blasts of the horn which would call reference to some obscenity. Seems like a rational plan to me!

Jaipur was a lovely city full of treasures and traps. We visited several ancient forts and palaces, rode elephants, raced in auto-rickshaws through downtown traffic, ate lots of spicy food, watched a block-printing demonstration, saw carpet weavers, listened to Indian music, bought souvenirs-- including marble elephants, camel-hide purses, and assorted batik wall hangings-- exchanged money, and ended our day with an unplanned encounter on the street with a shabbily dressed 12-year-old called The Magnificent Magic Boy!… well, okay, he just called himself ‘Magic Boy’ but he truly was a magnificent magician! His street act included making things disappear from your hands, coughing up large rocks, and making coins fall out of various orifices of your body… you HAD to be there to see it, but this kid was really good. The sponsors loved him and he earned some sizable tips that afternoon for his entertaining efforts. Ah, the unexpected and unplanned delights of a study tour!

Jaipur had become one of my favorite places to visit… ancient, historic, and awesome, but with a whimsical flair and the vibrant, friendly population who sincerely welcomed visitors to their city. It is Kipling’s India on steroids and stimulants encased in a rich foundation of history and hysteria. I hated to leave this land of ‘Magic Boy’ but Bangalore was calling and we had an early-morning plane to catch to the visit the “Garden City of the South.” Booming Bangalore beckoned our weary travelers with remnants of British colonialism and the futuristic enticements of a technology explosion!

(Although Gary returned to the United States on Tuesday, he will continue to document the travels of this Study Tour group through their adventures in Bangalore, Goa, and Mumbai.)

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Monday, November 5, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Awesome Agra!

After arriving in Agra, we visited the stunning Taj Mahal. We had to wait in long lines for entrance to the grounds of this national monument and security was very tight. Apparently, there are several groups who would like to blow up the Taj Mahal in an apparent and misguided way to call attention to their theology, ideology, or lunatic mission. Of course, this is India and getting to the entrance gate is a challenge of passing through aggressive 'hawkers'. hungry monkeys, tribal vendors who want to take you on a camel ride, and various vendors of knock-off Taj Mahal replicas made of soap, stone, plaster, mud, concrete, and Formica. Ahhh, the power of capitalism when combined with tourism!

No matter how well traveled you may be or cynical and staid, you will not be prepared for your first sighting of the Taj Mahal. As you walk through a tall marble arch erected over 500 years ago, you are immobilized by your first view of the Taj-- it shines, sparkles and almost hypnotizes you with its indescribable beauty. The grounds and gardens only add to its brilliance and majectic presence. Our sponsors are almost mute as they stand gazing at this monument of love and devotion... one man who wanted to honor his wife after she died was committed to construct the most beautiful mausoleum in the world... along with over 20,000 skilled stone carvers, artists, and craftsmen who toiled almost 30 years to complete this historic place. The gentleman may have been in love, but he also imprisoned his father for eight years at a nearby fort, killed several of his rival brothers, and reportedly ordered that the hands and fingers to be cut off of the most skilled artisans after they finished their work... he certainly did not want his monument duplicated by anyone!

Sunset at the Taj Mahal is almost a spiritual experience and our sponsor group was overwhelmed by their experience and visit. Later at the hotel, everyone was talking about the Taj during our delicious Indian buffet dinner-- Indian breads are the best in the world! They also like to serve an assortment of sweet desserts with each meal which certainly made most of us fatter and happier. Of course, on any study tour, there is a core group of serious shoppers! Despite the long day, several of us ventured from the hotel late that evening to seek trinkets and treasures of India. We stumbled onto a little store that was about to close... but the foreigners were welcomed guests of this family-run business and we kept them there until almost midnight. They were gracious and helpful, and we returned their hospitality in greenbacks and left with gifts for friends and families back home.

Our guide urged the group to get up a 5:00 a.m. the next day and see the Taj Mahal in the sunrise. We all looked like rejects from an endless marathon. During dinner I doubted that many would want to get up early and return to this monument. Wrong again! By 4:45 a.m. there were 15 sponsors in the hotel lobby the next morning ready to see the Taj Mahal one more time. Our irrational nocturnal behaviour was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sights you would ever want to see at sunrise. I neglected to say that the Taj Mahal has emerald, rubies and other precious stones embedded in the translucent marble walls and dome. When the rays of the sun reaches this monument, it actually sparkles as if hundreds of tiny blinking lights have been activated, unforgettable, and photos do not do it justice.

We also visited the Agra Fort that day which would make any 10-year-old boy delirious with delight-- the fort, complete with moat, covers over 200 acres and was constructed with colossal slabs of red sandstone. There are huge wooden gates, lots of dark passages, tunnels galore, lofty turrets, battle ramps, and magnificent gardens inside the walls. Harry Potter-- eat your heart out! THIS is a real castle for fun and exploration. You can only imagine how grand a life could be lived behind these gigantic walls.

Leaving Agra and heading southeast to the ancient city of Jaipur, we were to endure six endless hours of bumpy roads, traffic jams, and dueling trucks and buses trying to play 'chicken' on a highway of barely one lane. Halfway on our journey that day, we made a rest stop at a small, remote gasoline/snack bar place not normally frequented by foreign tourists. Of course, it was like the aliens from Jupiter had arrived and we were stared at, touched, and laughed at by the locals who came out to see the foreigners from space. Service was quick and friendly at the snack bar and we completely wiped out their supply of sandwiches, cookies, cold drinks, coffee, tea and almost every other available item that could be consumed by these hungry foreign invaders. I am sure the owners of this establishment will never forget the day that the ravenous white people from another country completely wiped out their supply of goodies. Biggest sales day in the last 500 years for this place! :)

Let me also add that we were always treated with friendliness and courtesy wherever we went that day and the children especially liked sponsors who would take photos of them on digital cameras... and show them the photos. One sponsor had brought what I can only described as Madri Gra beads-- and the kids, the parents, the snack bar workers, and everyone else loved them, I can now proudly state that there are probably at least 50 people who live near this rest stop now wearing these colorful beads!

We arrived at the historic city of Jaipur that evening. It would be an adventurous visit with elephant riding, auto-rickshaw racing, rug buying, sari-selling bonanzas only topped by the sudden appearance on the street of a poor, tattered 12-year-old youngster named Magic Boy who amazed our CCF sponsors with his skill, friendliness, and acts that defy explanation. More on Jaipur in my next report.

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Great Saturday morning in Bangalore, India... one of the most unique cities in all of India. Before I tell you a little about our visit to Bangalore, let me catch you up on our travels during the last week. This study tour is becoming one of the most educational and challenging tours we have ever implemented for sponsors.

Leaving Delhi almost a week ago, we slowly-- I stress slowly, made our way to Agra-- site of the Taj Mahal. As you inch your way through the traffic in Delhi, you realize that traffic in Los Angeles or Washington, DC, is really not that bad! At every traffic light, our bus is approached by what the locals call 'hawkers' with their variety of wares including colorful purses, snakes, peacock fans, food items, and other things you can not do without in your daily life. Of course, our sponsors are fascinated by this eager display of street entreprenurial activity and buy everything that is thrust toward them... while snapping photos as if this will be the only place we encounter these spirited sales people.

Normally, it should be easy to drive to Agra in less than two hours, but this is India were few things are easy. There is constant honking of horns, trucks using all lanes and even sidewalks to manuever their rigs, hundreds of people in the streets, enormous potholes everywhere, and a weird zoo-like assortment of camels, dogs, cattle, monkeys and even a few elephants in the road, make travel a magical and maddening adventure in India.

Of course, we must make the customary rest stop half-way to Agra where clean bathrooms for the foreigners and a host of every gaudy souvenir items are displayed before you actually can reach the snack counter to order a cool drink with biscuits (cookies). Remarkably, all of this chaos and confusion becomes normal, the longer you travel in India the longer all your senses become attuned to expect the unexpected and enjoy it!

Finally, we arrive in Agra, a city that must have been designed by a city planner having a bad day. There are winding streets that go in circles, intersections that are constantly grid-locked, and in the midst of hundreds of cars and trucks, you find a lonely, but sharply-dressed uniformed traffic officer trying to do his best in the worst of situations. Again, when all hope is dimmed, traffic begins to move and the impossible becomes the possible in India!

India is full of forts and palaces, and Agra is home to one of the most beautiful monuments in the world-- the stunning and peaceful Taj Mahal! More about our sunset and sunrise (ugh!) visit to the Taj in my next dispatch.

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